Serena Williams - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Wozniacki vs. Serena:  Finally, the moment of truth has arrived.  For almost a year, WTA fans have the match that they have craved between the gentle yet controversial Dane atop the rankings and the greatest women’s player of her generation.  While Serena’s fans will salivate over the prospect of the American systematically thrashing another overmatched pretender to the throne, they should not rub their palms too gleefully.  Gifted with a useful talent for survival, Wozniacki appeared to gain in confidence by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against Kuznetsova in the fourth round.  Generally dominant against Petkovic in the quarterfinals, she even struck her less impressive groundstroke, the forehand, down the line with authority and redirected the ball more ambitiously than she had fro most of the spring and summer.  Like Serena against Azarenka in the third round, the world #1 struggled to deliver the coup de grace in her quarterfinal and narrowly avoided a third set, but once again her knack for tightening her technique and concentration on key points shone through.  In one of her two previous meetings with the American, she extended her to a third-set tiebreak, a narrow defeat from which she should extract the belief that she can conquer her.

Tested only sporadically in her first five rounds, Serena has not lost a set this fortnight and brings a 16-match into this highly anticipated encounter.  With the exception of Ivanovic, all of her victims have gulped down a bagel or a breadstick as they hastily retreated from the three-time champion’s assault.  Slightly uncertain in the first sets of her last two matches, her serve remains essential to her confidence and her efforts to play a match centered around holds rather than breaks.  If Serena can hold comfortably and quickly with the finest serve in the women’s game, the pressure on Wozniacki’s service games will mount.  When returning the current #1’s serve, the former #1 must decide between swinging for lines and corners immediately while accepting the errors that will come with that aggression, or delivering a penetrating first strike that nevertheless allows the Dane to maneuver into a rally.  For first-serve returns, at least, we would recommend the latter alternative, since Serena’s physical talent and natural athleticism will enable her to stay in baseline exchanges with Wozniacki longer than most WTA power-hitters.  While the Dane should direct her heavy groundstrokes down the center of the court, the American also might prioritize pace over angles, denying her opponent the scampering retrievals that she relishes and wearing her down with sheer power until she draws a mid-court ball.

Rather than relying on hitting through Wozniacki from behind the baseline, Serena probably will need to plant herself inside it and impose her intimidating presence before pouncing on opportunities to finish points in the forecourt.  Two years ago, she faltered against the seamless movement and crafty counterpunching of 2009 champion Clijsters, who bears some similarities to the Dane.  Confident that she can outhit any powerhitter who crosses her path, Serena occasionally lacks that rocklike certitude when she faces an opponent who can track down unexpected quantities of her shots.  Against Jankovic in the 2008 final, moreover, she escaped a third set by only one point when her focus sagged and disrupted the precision of her timing.  If her intensity stays elevated throughout, she can advance in straight sets past an opponent burdened by increasing pressure.  But don’t expect Wozniacki to crumble abjectly as have other Slamless #1s before her.

Samantha Stosur - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Kerber vs. Stosur:  The 92nd-ranked player in the WTA, Angelique Kerber had won seven total Slam matches prior to this tournament—one at the US Open—and never had reached the second week.  Two wins away from accomplishing the unthinkable, she has exploited a section that became the softest in the draw following early losses by Kvitova and Sharapova.  All the same, her three-set victories over Radwanska and Pennetta revealed a competitive sturdiness surprising considering her lack of experience.  While neither of those opponents can overpower their victims, their steady baseline arsenal and occasional bursts of variety posed tests compelling for a player unfamiliar with her exalted surroundings.  At this stage, Kerber will play with the fearlessness of an underdog who has both the momentum of recent upsets and the freedom that stems from the nearly insurmountable odds against her.  If she should maneuver herself into a winning position, though, one wonders whether she will continue to find the same composure that allowed her to rally from multiple deficits against Pennetta.

Or are the odds in fact so insurmountable?  Fragile for most of her season, Stosur rarely has excelled in the role of the clear favorite, which she clearly occupies here.  Toppled at Roland Garros by Dulko and at Wimbledon by Melinda Czink, she struggles to find solutions on days when her finest tennis deserts her.  Falling to lefties at two of her three majors in 2011, the Australian will not relish the thought of Kerber’s lefty serve and cross-court forehand slashing into her vulnerable backhand.  When opponents relentlessly pound away at her weakness, the rest of her game can disintegrate.  On the other hand, little in Stosur’s game looked on the verge of disintegrating throughout an intimidating performance against Zvonareva in the quarterfinals.  Despite her notorious dominance over the Russian, a match in which she never faced a break point and won over 80% of her first-serve points should strike terror into any opponent other than Serena.  Neither Radwanska nor Pennetta confronted Kerber with the sort of serving impenetrability that she probably will encounter in the semifinal, however.  In by far the most significant match of her career, the German must maintain her composure and stay competitive early, for Stosur should prove susceptible to nerves as the ends of close sets and matches approach.  Does Kerber become the most improbable Slam finalist in recent memory, or does the clock finally strike midnight on the US Open Cinderella?