Although we normally approximate the order of play in our daily previews, we diverge from it today to start with the match that many eagerly awaited since the draws appeared.  (Scroll further down for the Battles of the Blondes, equally delicious in our opinion.)

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland congratulates Rafael Nadal of Spain after winning the men's final match during day fourteen of the 2009 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on  February 1, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal;Roger Federer

When one glances back across the tapestry woven together by the two great rivals of their generation, one cannot fail to see the central role of clay and grass in this narrative.  Only once have they met at a hard-court major in a memorable but not quite classic five-set final, more notable for the tears of the loser than the triumph of the victor.  During the three long years since then, much has happened to both of our protagonists, each of whom completed a career Grand Slam and one of whom established himself firmly as the greatest of all time.  Despite those accomplishments, their collisions have waned inexorably with time.  Perhaps one should not regret the attenuation of this rivalry, however, for the imperfections of the present cannot cast too long a shadow upon the glories of the past.

Not since Wimbledon five years ago has Federer defeated Nadal at a major, and not since Madrid in 2009 has he defeated the Spaniard at a tournament other than Rafa’s bête noire, the year-end championships.  To be sure, he will gain confidence from a resounding victory in their clash there last year, but a similarly emphatic triumph at the 2007 year-end championships preceded the turning point in their rivalry:  consecutive victories by Nadal in the 2008 Roland Garros and Wimbledon finals.  When they met on the Miami hard courts last spring, Federer looked passive and resigned almost as soon as the match began, notwithstanding his perceived superiority on this surface.  Rarely threatening Rafa on his serve, Roger struggled with his serve and approach shots throughout a match that felt even more lopsided than its scoreline.  Curiously, Federer acquitted himself much more creditably in two clay losses to Nadal at Madrid and Roland Garros, both times winning a set and finding ways to unsettle his nemesis for extended stretches.  At this stage in their careers, each man can hide few secrets from the other as their games have hardened into crystals that will resist significant alteration.  The second seed’s amplified serve might trigger concern in Federer fans, but that shot has not dazzled at pivotal moments throughout this fortnight, such as when Nadal served for the second set against Berdych.  On the contrary, Roger-Rafa XXVII should hinge once again upon the mental dimension, which the Spaniard gradually wrested away from the Swiss star as their rivalry unfolded.

While one might think that recapturing that advantage would lie beyond the powers of a 30-year-old legend, perhaps one should not jump to conclusions prematurely.  In his quiet, methodical way, Federer has compiled a perfect record since the US Open and has looked the more poised player throughout this fortnight.  Beset by nagging knees, festering concerns over the schedule, and the looming specter of Djokovic, Nadal has displayed less competitive appetite and relentless focus than one has grown accustomed to observing from him.  All the same, his four-set quarterfinal victory over Berdych rekindled that familiar spark at the most auspicious moment.  Uninspired for much of the first two sets, Nadal erupted into his fiercely physical, fiery self during the last two sets as he swung with more predatory purpose than he had shown in any of his previous matches.  If that determination replaces his diffident edginess from the first week, Federer will find himself under pressure once again.  As he attempts to summon his own positive energy, he should reflect back upon his virtuoso performance against Del Potro, during which he struck nearly every shot with conviction from his forehand drop shots to his down-the-line backhands.  That latter shot must penetrate the court to prevent Nadal from targeting it and waiting patiently for a mid-court reply to hammer with an inside-in or inside-out forehand.  Since each man knows how to probe the weaknesses of the other, expect a chess match in each point and game from these two masters of their craft.  While they will not scorch rockets like a Djokovic or a Soderling, Roger and Rafa complement each other’s styles and personalities more symmetrically than any other pair of gladiators.

Azarenka vs. Clijsters:  From their head-to-head spring few memorable matches and fewer lessons, other than the Belgian’s superiority in three-setters.  Winning both of her final stanzas against Azarenka, Clijsters benefited from her opponent’s emotional immaturity in their early meetings.  The two women rarely have displayed their finest tennis against each other at the same time, a pity considering their evenly matched talents.  Having reached her second semifinal just two majors after her first, Azarenka has evolved into a more poised competitor over the past year who now believes more deeply in her right to play on the grand stage.  To be sure, she still can veer off course without warning at inopportune moments, but Vika now recovers more courageously from those lapses to reverse the momentum.  An eloquent example of this trend, her quarterfinal against Radwanska witnessed a disastrous tiebreak bagel in the first set, which previously would have unlocked the frantic, feckless Azarenka of years past.   Instead, she held her ground during two close games early in the second set and abruptly stopped a tenacious opponent in her tracks.  After four victories over thoroughly outclassed opponents, her comeback should inspire confidence in her should this semifinal prove as tight as expected.

A round after she launched a comeback of her own, the defending champion squelched a putative comeback from Wozniacki in a match that she dominated until the threshold of victory.  Like Azarenka, who has struggled to finish matches this week, Clijsters grew increasingly tense as she thrust the world #1 towards the brink of the precipice.  With a third set on the horizon, though, she collected herself impressively to deliver some of her best shot-making and most imposing serves of the encounter.  During the second-set tiebreak, Clijsters did not miss a single first serve or lose a point on her serve, finding the same lines that she had missed as her lead had evaporated.  Probably the two best players in the WTA at transitioning from defense to offense, these semifinalists often will force each other to restart rallies and hit multiple shots to finish points.  Although she does not sprawl across the court in flamboyant splits like the Belgian, Azarenka possesses keen instincts and anticipation that allow her to return offensive shots with depth.  Gifted with especially crisp backhands, both women can lose their timing on their powerful but less reliable forehands for games at a time, so watch that wing for symptoms of pressure.  The Melbourne crowd, firmly in the Belgian’s corner so far, may ruffle Azarenka as a similar pro-Clijsters crowd did in Miami, but she has grown somewhat more skillful at turning hostility into renewed willpower rather than self-defeating frustration.

In her final Australian Open, the defending champion surely will not depart without a valiant struggle.  Nevertheless, Azarenka may bring greater ambition and intensity to a match that means far more to her career than it does to the waning Belgian.  Having won one set in her first Slam semifinal last year, an impressive effort for a debutante at that level, she should fancy her chances to double that total on her second visit to the penultimate round.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Sharapova vs. Kvitova:  Through the minds of both statuesque blondes will wander the memories of their meeting on the most prestigious stage in the sport last year.  Whereas one woman will seek continuity, the other will focus on plotting her revenge.  Not expected to reach the semifinals when the tournament began, Sharapova has demonstrated once more that she can stride into a tournament with minimal preparation and immediately plow deep into the draw.  Abetted by a gentle draw during the early stages, she nevertheless has impressed while losing only a handful of games in each round with the exception of a three-set comeback against Lisicki.  Well below her best form in the quarterfinals, Sharapova surrendered just five games to a dangerous dark horse while missing swarms of routine shots and sometimes hesitating when presented with an open court.  Refusing to retreat, the 2008 champion seemed to strike the ball even harder and even closer to the lines after every error.  After three backhand errors cost the Russian her first three match points, a backhand bullet scorched a sideline to convert her fourth. Throughout the uneven but courageous display, though, her serve and return rarely abandoned her.  Those key shots proved the difference in the Wimbledon final and offer her the greatest hope of reversing its outcome here.

When this pair clashed in the grassy confines of the All England Club, untimely double faults and wayward service returns cost her at crucial moments, while Kvitova unleashed a nearly flawless display of first-strike tennis that kept her opponent pinned helplessly behind the baseline.  Through her first five matches, the world #2 has continued to win as many points with sheer depth as with ruthless angles, challenging her foes to absorb her pace.  Like Sharapova, though, she has not advanced without occasional glimpses of frailty, sharing the Russian’s tendency towards second-set lapses.  Also like Sharapova, Kvitova rarely settles into lengthy cross-court exchanges but instead redirects the ball whenever possible to stretch the contours of the court.  Since neither woman moves especially well and will struggle to recover from a defensive position, this semifinal will contrast with its counterpart in the length of its points.  Although the surface at the Australian Open plays more slowly than does Centre Court at Wimbledon, the power of each woman’s weapons and the deficiencies of their defense should combine to produce a match of relatively short, explosive points.  Curiously, though, the most overlooked or underestimated element in an arsenal often proves the very weapon that secures a crucial victory.  One semifinalist’s desperate retrieval might well take the other by surprise at a turning point in the match.

Adding an additional layer of intrigue to their encounter is the succession struggle over the world #1 ranking among Kvitova, Azarenka, and Sharapova.  If Clijsters wins the first semifinal, Kvitova would earn a ticket to the penthouse with a victory.  Otherwise, the winner of this semifinal would play Azarenka for both the title and the #1 ranking.  Don’t look too far ahead too soon, though, for the duel of these two Wimbledon champions promises a scintillating smorgasbord of shot-making that any admirer of offensively oriented tennis should relish.

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