Andy Murray - Western & Southern Open - Day 5

Murray vs. Fish:  A day after his spirit-lifting first victory over Nadal, Fish now seeks to topple an elite opponent against whom he has enjoyed considerably greater success.  In fact, the American’s four triumphs over the world #4 include a scintillating quarterfinal victory at last year’s tournament.  That encounter climaxed with a third-set tiebreak during which Fish’s serving advantage proved decisive, earning him more free points than the Scot.  Unbroken by a weary Nadal, the home hope has not lost serve in the tournament on a slick surface that suits his aggressive style more than Murray’s counterpunching.  Nevertheless, the 2008 champion has struck his serve with authority during his last two matches and elevated his first-serve percentage in a routine victory over the dangerous Simon.  If Murray can retain that rhythm during his service games, he should gain the confidence necessary to seize the few opportunities that he earns on his opponent’s serve.  If his percentage falters, by contrast, the American’s ambitious return should punish one of the weakest second serves in the top 10.

Although Fish has won their last three encounters, his strengths should play into the Scot’s greatest weapons:  his returns and passing shots, among the finest in the ATP.  Striking forehands heavy on spin and light on power, both players possess more potent point-ending weapons from their two-handers, both of which can redirect the ball at will. Whereas Murray has played just four matches since Wimbledon, Fish already has clinched the US Open Series title by winning 14 of his 16 encounters this summer as he stands within one victory of a fourth straight final.  Likely to outlast the American from the baseline, the fourth seed has honed fitness still superior despite his opponent’s improvements in that area.  The length of the exchanges thus should hint at the outcome of this semifinal.

Djokovic vs. Berdych:  Near the halfway point of his quarterfinal against Monfils, the world #1 looked more vulnerable than he had for most of the season.  As unforced errors flew from even his reliable backhand, one sensed that his stirring streak at Masters 1000 tournaments would not survive an evening in which the Frenchman’s focus had not strayed.  But a double fault at 4-4 in the second set gave Djokovic the only opening that he would require to reverse the momentum, not relinquished thereafter.  Fortunate to escape the near-debacle, the top seed waxed in confidence during a formidable final set.  That confidence will serve him well against an opponent who has surrendered his serve only once this week, facing only a single break point in his last two matches and dropping just five first-serve points in an emphatic triumph over Federer.  Overwhelmed by Berdych at Wimbledon a year ago, Djokovic has swept their past four meetings and ten of their last eleven sets.  The Czech’s mighty serve can trouble even the Serb’s potent return for prolonged periods, though, resulting in two tiebreaks earlier this year.

Having conceded his own delivery no fewer than eight times in three matches, Djokovic must seek to improve that rate during the semifinal.  Repeatedly under pressure from Monfils, he preserved a steady percentage but found himself forced to play longer and more neutral rallies than usual in his service games.  After that enervating victory on Friday evening, the world #1 must collect himself before late Saturday afternoon in order to withstand Berdych’s penetrating first strike.  Although that task seems challenging in the torrid Ohio summer, Djokovic did regroup effectively from an even longer, more exhausting victory over Murray in Rome before defeating Nadal a day later.  He probably need not expend such vast reserves of energy against a player who does not win from counterpunching or endurance.  Several notches below his best on Friday, the Serb still navigated through a potentially perilous encounter with a top-10 foe.  Intimidating to all but his most formidable rivals, the aura of invincibility that he has accumulated this season has guarded him like a shield throughout the last two weeks.  Will Berdych have gained sufficient impetus from his best win of 2011 to puncture that shield?

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 5

Sharapova vs. Zvonareva:  Among the sport’s most alert opportunists, Sharapova wasted little time in capitalizing upon Serena’s withdrawal from her section of the draw.  Yielding just five games apiece to two accomplished opponents, the Russian recaptured the thunderous returns and groundstrokes that propelled her to last year’s final.  Suffocated by her baseline bombardment, neither Kuznetsova nor Stosur held serve with adequate consistency to assert themselves against an adversary who minimized the inevitable lapses of her own serve.  Sharapova has broken opponents in 17 of 25 return games this week, often assaulting first serves with as much savagery as second serves.  Sturdy in the first sets of her victories, her serve faltered occasionally in the second set but did not fluster the three-time Slam champion or deplete her confidence on returns.  A respectable albeit not outstanding server, Zvonareva hopes to hold with greater frequency and can absorb her countrywoman’s first-strike velocity more effectively than her previous two victims.  On the other hand, Sharapova has won five of her last six meetings with the world #2 and served for the match in her only loss to Vera since 2004.

Winning Baku and reaching the final in San Diego, Zvonareva has thrust untimely defeats at Roland Garros and Wimbledon behind her as she prepares for the US Open.  Hampered by few flaws from the neck downwards, she can strike winners from both groundstroke wings, cover both the baseline and the forecourt with near-equal comfort, transition smoothly from defense to offense, and display a keen court sense when constructing points.  That last attribute can fade when her composure deserts her, though, as has happened too often in close matches against more accomplished opponents.   Since she covers the open court so effectively, Sharapova may attempt to hit behind her and force her to reverse direction, challenging footwork rather than foot speed.  Despite the recent trajectory of their rivalry, most of their sets have stayed highly competitive, generally decided by only a single break of serve.  When a set or match hinges upon a few key points, the player who trusts her tactics and execution more firmly holds the advantage.  That greater clarity of mind formerly has belonged to Sharapova, but her post-surgery serving struggles and Zvonareva’s 2010 breakthrough may have brought them to more similar levels of self-belief.

Petkovic vs. Jankovic:  Twice already have they met in 2011, with the higher-ranked but less familiar German emerging victorious both times.  Winning the first set resoundingly on both occasions, Jankovic lost the second set just as resoundingly and could not quite recover in a more competitive third set.  Gifted a quarterfinal walkover by Peng, the 2009 Cincinnati champion will profit from the respite as she attempts to rebound from the physically and emotionally draining marathon against Schiavone a day before.  Entering the tournament on a three-match losing streak, Jankovic appears ready to spring one of her sporadic, phoenix-like ascents to ambush a draw of unwary rivals, who nearly had forgotten her presence.  She no longer possesses the stirring tenacity that captivated international audiences, especially on clay, but her talent for producing the unexpected still beguiles.  Often inspired by evening sessions, she should relish the moment as much as her even more flamboyant opponent.

The first player ever to win an evening match from Sharapova at a major, Petkovic has displayed the swagger that shines under the lights.  Full of riveting twists and turns, breaks and break points were the two previous meetings between these natural entertainers, neither of whom dominates on their serve.  While Jankovic has enhanced her least formidable shot over the past year, she continues to rely more heavily upon her movement and timing.  Likewise among the WTA’s crisper movers, Petkovic strikes her groundstrokes with less spin and thus less margin for error but defends more effectively than one would expect for a player centered around offense.  All the same, the German will aim to dictate most of the rallies from the baseline, organizing points around the forehand where she enjoys a clear advantage over the Serb.  The former #1 will hope to pin Petkovic far behind the baseline, luring this relatively inexperienced opponent into low-percentage shot selection.  Seeking what would represent the most significant final of her career, the German must control her emotions should she maneuver herself into a promising position.