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Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 8

Djokovic vs. Tipsarevic:  In his first Slam quarterfinal, one of the ATP’s most mercurial personalities faces a compatriot whose exploits have redoubled his own motivation.  Long known more for his off-court antics than on-court achievements, Tipsarevic has elevated his once dubious perseverance to raise his ranking inside the top 20 for the first time.  Overcoming the ageless Ferrero in nearly four hours a round ago, the third-ranked Serb broke through with a semifinal at the Rogers Cup after defeating Verdasco and Berdych.  His down-the-line backhand has sizzled this fortnight as it did a year ago when he upset Roddick, while he has learned to deploy his explosive but unruly forehand more judiciously.  Despite his unprepossessing physique, Tipsarevic projects unexpected power from behind the baseline by leaning into his compact strokes with sturdy balance and timing.  An idiosyncratic character who loves to entertain, he should enjoy the opportunity of playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium.  In addition to his upset over Roddick here last year, the Serb dazzled the Melbourne crowd in 2008 with an inspired, resilient performance against Federer.

Against the world #1, however, Tipsarevic can find few weaknesses to probe either physically or mentally.  Without even finding his peak form, Djokovic has eased through his first four matches without dropping a set—an intimidating thought for his second-week opponents.  More spirited than second-ranked Serb Troicki, Tipsarevic has won sets from his compatriot in both of their previous encounters but has dropped a bagel, a breadstick, and a 6-2 set among the four that he has lost.  Although the top seed’s return game has fallen short of its usual ferocity so far, he should have little trouble attacking his opponent’s benign second serve.  For every penetrating backhand that Tipsarevic can strike, Djokovic can deliver an even more formidable blow.  In the best-of-five format, his fitness should prove an advantage against an opponent who has played many fewer matches at majors, while his focus should stay the stronger of the two during a potential rain delay.  The last match before Djokovic confronts his genuine rivals, this quarterfinal should represent an opportunity to advance efficiently, regain his ball-striking rhythm after the odd Dolgopolov encounter, and accumulate confidence before Super Saturday, when he might face Federer for a fifth consecutive US Open.

Serena vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Leading the eight WTA quarterfinalists in double faults, the 20-year-old Russian ranks second among them in breaks of serve (and ranked first until Kuznetsova capitulated in Monday’s third set).  From that pair of statistics emerges the narrative sketched by Pavlyuchenkova’s four victories here, defined by plentiful breaks, blistering returns, and fragile serving.  Quite the opposite are the statistics accumulated by her quarterfinal opponent, who leads the final eight in aces and in service points won.  Dropping her serve just twice in the tournament, Serena has allowed her opponents almost no margin for error.  In straight-sets victories over Azarenka and Ivanovic, the world #4 and former world #1 played some of the most impressive tennis that they can produce but still could not seriously threaten the three-time US Open champion.  Somewhat frustrated by the wind a round ago, Serena will enjoy the more settled evening conditions unless another storm arrives.  Her own hurricane of winners from serve and groundstrokes has dazzled with an effortlessness absent from the games of her rivals.  For the rising Pavlyuchenkova, a junior #1 and junior US Open champion, the task will prove especially intimidating considering her struggle to protect her own serve.

If this newest Russian talent aims to become the first player to defeat Serena on a hard court this year, she will want to step into her second-serve returns with aggressive positioning that signals her menacing intent.  This tactic worked relatively well for Ivanovic, who won more than half of the American’s second-serve points by taking more risks with her returns rather than allowing a rally to develop.  An indifferent mover at best, Pavlyuchenkova can contend only by playing offense for the majority of the rallies.  Armed with stinging groundstrokes on both wings, the Russian has the ability to thrust Serena behind the baseline if she can establish herself in the center of the court.  In order to dictate play, though, she will need to serve much more effectively than she has until this stage.  As shaky servers have learned before, Serena only waxes in confidence when she realizes that she can break regularly.  Rarely do her matches disintegrate into the type of break-fest where Pavlyuchenkova flourishes.  While they did play a three-setter in their only previous meeting, an ailing stomach and the inimical clay hampered Serena’s efforts on that occasion.  Nevertheless, the feisty Russian should provide a glimpse under the lights of the raw talent that has brought her to two Slam quarterfinals this year and that might eventually carry her to this title.

Federer vs. Tsonga:  Following their five-set Wimbledon quarterfinal, one wonders what sort of entr’acte to expect from players who personify clashing dimensions of the game.  Grace and artistry succumbed once again to undiluted power in a Rogers Cup three-setter this summer, tempting spectators to cast Tsonga as the 2011 version of what Berdych accomplished in 2010 and Del Potro accomplished in 2009.  When Federer lost consecutive matches to those ball-bruisers, however, he reversed the result in the following meeting with an especially sparkling performance.  And when he faced Soderling in a 2010 quarterfinal here, having lost to him in the same round at Roland Garros, an emphatic display of Swiss craftsmanship ensued.  To this stage, Federer still has not encountered an adversary worthy of his steel, although Marin Cilic mounted surprising resistance for two and a half sets.  In Wimbledon this year and at other majors, a sudden spike in the level of competition has unsettled or undone the 16-time major champion by forcing him to steeply elevate his own prowess.  Few could imagine a more comfortable fourth-round victory than his rout of a Juan Monaco complicit in own demise.  But Federer’s serve has looked outstanding throughout this tournament, offering an auspicious omen for a match that should feature few service breaks and at least a tiebreak or two.

In his last eight sets against Federer, Tsonga has lost his serve just twice, and he did not lose his serve at all across the last four sets of his Wimbledon upset.  Similarly efficient against Fish in the fourth round, the Frenchman suffered exactly one lull late in the third set and remained unbroken throughout the rest of that five-set rollercoaster.  Once again rallying from a deficit, Tsonga enjoys a 7-2 record in final sets at majors that perplexes considering his struggles with concentration and distinctly trumps Federer’s record in that category.  Unlike many of the ATP’s inveterate baseliners, both players often follow their serves or forehands towards the net in the knowledge that their crisp volleys can slash away most passing shots.  The arrhythmic quality of Tsonga’s spectacularly athletic style has troubled the Swiss master before, especially when he chips back average returns that his opponent can devour.  Too often content to let the Frenchman control points in his last two losses, Federer needs to exchange that passivity for a bolder strategy this time.  During the final stages of his career, he has delivered his most convincing efforts when most motivated, and the quest to avenge an embarrassing Wimbledon setback should spur his motivation as it did last year against Berdych.  A more confident competitor than the Czech, Tsonga will not assist Federer with poor shot selection or nervous execution when the match hangs in the balance.  Although he remains susceptible to passages of indifferent play, this maturing Frenchman lately has found a way to limit their damage and save his most formidable tennis for vital moments.  Should Federer survive this compelling challenge, therefore, he should feel ever more optimistic about his chances of contending for a 17th major title over the weekend.

Andrea Petkovic - 2011 US Open - Day 8

Wozniacki vs. Petkovic:  Fortunate to have reached this round at all, the controversial top seed seemed headed straight for disaster when she trailed Kuznetsova by a set and a break.  Courtesy of another signature Sveta collapse, Wozniacki survived after 182 minutes to play another day, but she cannot expect such generosity from Petkovic.  The only woman to reach three Slam quarterfinals this year, the multitalented German debuted the famous Petko-dance last year on the Louis Armstrong Stadium where she will face the world #1.  This athlete, musician, dancer, politician, and filmmaker found the time amidst her many pursuits to dispatch the Dane in a Miami three-setter before Wozniacki exacted revenge in Stuttgart a few weeks later.  Unlike so many of Caro’s other opponents, Petkovic doesn’t simply hit hard, harder, and hardest in an attempt to burst through the defenses of the WTA’s most impregnable counterpuncher.  More intelligent than many of her peers, she resolved in Miami to disrupt Wozniacki’s rhythm with heavy-spinning groundstrokes to her backhand that set up less penetrating responses for her to hammer into her opponent’s forehand corner.  Those ploys sufficed to topple the Dane on a day when her groundstrokes spewed unforced errors in uncharacteristic quantities, but the top seed has stayed stingier so far in New York.  In three epic sets against Kuznetsova, she committed only four more unforced errors than did Petkovic in two relatively routine sets against Suarez Navarro.

During an eight-match winning streak that started with a fourth straight New Haven title, Wozniacki has retreated from the forced aggression that had seemed so uncomfortable for her in Toronto and Cincinnati.  In order to win a major, she may yet need to tilt further along the spectrum towards offense and strike more than the six winners per set that she averaged in the Kuznetsova marathon.  Confronting the low-margin style of Petkovic, who has a -23 winners/errors differential here, Wozniacki still may find discretion the better part of valor.  Her epic victory in the previous round will have reaffirmed her faith that she knows how to manage these tense matches, so her body language may improve for the quarterfinal.  Sagging and deflated for much of those three hours on Monday night, the world #1 has looked more oppressed this summer than before by the scrutiny surrounding her Slamless condition.  In the second half of that fierce battle, though, Wozniacki found the inner calm that allowed her to outlast an opponent who couldn’t deliver the coup de grace.  Over the last two seasons, the German also has faltered chronically when finishing matches, and she allowed a thoroughly outclassed Suarez Navarro to climb almost all the way out of a 5-1 deficit in the second set.  With the resilience that Wozniacki displayed in stemming Kuznetsova’s tide, Petkovic cannot afford to stagger or meander if she takes a lead.  Can she forestall a tantalizing clash between the world #1 and the woman whom many feel should supplant her?

See the Day 9 article below for the matches postponed from a torrential Tuesday to a potentially waterlogged Wednesday.

 

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Petra Kvitova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eight

Azarenka vs. Kvitova:  Filled with percussive groundstrokes and fiercely aggressive shot selection, their Madrid clash developed into one of the most scintillating women’s finals on clay in recent years.  In her second straight Wimbledon semifinal, Kvitova can recall the most significant title of her career so far and the manner in which she achieved it, thumping nearly 50 winners in two sets.  Just as vital to the outcome of that tightly contested encounter, the Czech lefty’s serve lifted her on crucial points to deny Azarenka most of her opportunities to break.  In the contrast between their second serves lies the Czech’s most substantial advantage, for Azarenka offers returners a vulnerable target with that shot.  Therefore, first-serve percentage will play a critical role in the Belarussian’s fate, whereas Kvitova must guard against the mental lapses that still can descend upon her.  Outside such a lull in her victory over Pironkova, Kvitova has dominated her opponents on both serve and return throughout this fortnight, but she has not encountered an opponent who can match her baseline power.  Her signature curling cross-court forehand plays into the teeth of Vika’s most notable weapon, the backhand, leading to rallies that pit strength against strength or weakness against weakness.  In this context, each player will force her opponent to identify the most opportune moment for redirecting the ball down the line.

Although the fourth seed had not reached a Slam semifinal before Tuesday’s victory over Paszek, she probably has accumulated greater experience against elite opponents at significant tournaments.  But she cannot permit Kvitova to dictate the rallies as comprehensively as she did in Madrid, though, and thus must deliver her first strike (whether serve or return) with particularly stinging vigor.  The semifinalist who unleashes her groundstrokes with the greatest margin, Vika also has proven herself the most averse to risk among this notably risk-embracing quartet and the most fragile under pressure.  Since fortune generally favors the braver woman on grass, Kvitova should fancy her chances of repeating her victory over Azarenka in Wimbledon 2010 and advancing to a maiden Slam final.  Most vulnerable in the early rounds of tournaments this season, she has won all three of her semifinals this year as her confidence mounts from one victory to the next.  Still only 20, she may yet surpass Wozniacki and Azarenka as the most complete competitor, physically and mentally, of her generation.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eight

Sharapova vs. Lisicki:  Seven years ago, a towering blonde surged from the Birmingham title to claim the Venus Rosewater Dish without having reached a Slam semifinal before.  In 2011, that narrative verges on repeating itself after Lisicki’s Roland Garros agony modulated into ecstasy on the Wimbledon lawns, where she already has defeated two top-10 opponents with one of the most overpowering serves in the women’s game.  The protagonist in the earlier narrative, Sharapova has reached semifinals at consecutive majors for the first time since 2007 as her partnership with Thomas Hogstedt has injected her with fresh insights and momentum.  In order to halt Lisicki’s eleven-match winning streak, Maria must continue the timely serving that propelled her through victories over Peng and Cibulkova while surrendering only one break.  Aware of the power that her opponent projects on this surface with every stroke, the 2004 champion must fasten herself to the baseline while constantly searching for opportunities to step inside it.  Even if this tactic results in conceding additional aces, Sharapova should willingly trade them in exchange for more penetrating replies when she does make contact.   Just as assertive court positioning will prove essential for the Russian, the German must balance velocity  with consistency in her first serves.  When Sharapova routed her in Miami this spring, a flagging first-serve percentage exposed her relatively modest second delivery to one of the WTA’s most savage returners.  No sharper in movement or instincts than her opponent, Lisicki similarly must dictate from the outset rather than scrambling to recover.

Absent from the penultimate round of majors for three years, Sharapova’s Roland Garros semifinal exposed uncharacteristic nerves in a situation that had become unfamiliar.  The lessons from that recent defeat may assist her to prepare more effectively for this second opportunity, although she faces a distinctly different type of opponent.  As the oldest and by far the most accomplished semifinalist, Sharapova brings not only the memories of triumphs past but the expectations that spring from them, complicating her quest for triumphs to come.  Contesting her first major semifinal, by contrast, Lisicki can repeat clichés about “nothing to lose” with full honesty.  Moreover, she already forged an inspiring Centre Court memory of her own this fortnight by saving match points against Li Na on the sport’s most fabled arena.  Threatened by severe, career-threatening injuries in recent years, both semifinalists have captured respect from audiences for their fortitude in adversity.  After their labyrinthine journeys from convalescence to contention, they now gain greater satisfaction than ever from their accomplishments, knowing that the endless months of tenuous patience and tireless efforts have reaped rewards.

Francesca Schiavone - 2011 French Open - Day Eight

Pavlyuchenkova vs. Schiavone:  Surviving a taut three-setter against Jankovic, Schiavone must recover swiftly in order to reinvigorate the adroit movement and reflexes essential for her suffocating court coverage.  If the Italian enters the match flat-footed or emotionally dulled by her previous rollercoaster, she could fall prey to Pavlyuchenkova’s blistering backhands.  But fatigue seems unlikely to afflict a player who recovered from the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history to threaten the world #1 a round later in Melbourne.  Remarkably mature for her nineteen years, the Russian defeated Schiavone in Miami last year before collecting just three games from her at the US Open, part of an arid second half for the teenager.  Trailing Zvonareva in both of the sets that she ultimately won, Pavlyuchenkova showcased not only her familiar ball-striking brilliance (seemingly something that her compatriots take from the womb) but an unfamiliar tenacity that she formerly had lacked.  Nevertheless, the Russian now will face a foe much steelier than the still-fragile Vera, and she must beware of the complacency that could stem from appearing in her first Slam quarterfinal after scoring one of her most significant victories to date.   Discounted on the eve of the tournament by many observers, including ourselves, Schiavone stands three winnable matches from an improbable title defense that would free her from the label of “one-Slam wonder.”  A victim in the quarterfinals of the last two majors, she can deploy her experience and veteran cunning to defuse an opponent eleven years her junior.

Monfils vs. Federer:  For the third time in four years, the 16-time major champion meets the leading home hope on the Parisian terre battue.  During their 2008 semifinal, Monfils infused his countrymen with fleeting hope as he captured a set from the Swiss grandmaster; in 2009, by contrast, he succumbed relatively meekly after an intriguing first set.  Always separating Federer from the Frenchman are his superior focus and superior desire, the first of which has ebbed in recent years but the second of which remains largely undimmed.  At his best, Monfils scampers along the baseline while uncorking thunderous serves and forehands with an exuberant nonchalance simultaneously endearing and frustrating.  At his worst, he lapses into a leisurely lope and soporific exchanges with all of the rhythm and imagination of a metronome.  The best of Monfils surfaced during his scintillating upset over Federer at the Paris Indoors last fall, when he swatted away five match points from a disinterested world #2.  Struggling to sustain that level in a best-of-five format, the Frenchman danced near disaster by squandering double match point as he served for the match against Ferrer in their two-day encounter.  Perhaps relieved  to escape the scrutiny enveloping Nadal and Djokovic, Federer has arrived in the quarterfinals without dropping a set and will bring greater reserves of energy to their encounter.  While a few Gallic flourishes should enliven the afternoon, the 2009 champion has shown sufficient composure here to weather the spectacle across the net by maintaining the steadiness of a Rolex.

Kuznetsova vs. Bartoli:  Defying the conventional wisdom, playing a tournament the week before a major has benefited three of the women’s quarterfinalists.  Bereft of momentum until Brussels and Strasbourg, Bartoli, Schiavone, and Petkovic finally dug into the terre battue at those minor events and entrenched themselves further during the first week of Roland Garros.  Scoring a startling victory over Stuttgart champion Goerges, the top-ranked Frenchwoman should climb even higher as the lawns of Wimbledon beckon.  Both women owe boxes of chocolates to fourth-round opponents Hantuchova and Dulko, who greatly eased their routes by ambushing Wozniacki and Stosur, respectively.  Wildly inconsistent in their results, they have not played a suspenseful match in their three meetings, instead trading bagels and 6-2 sets.  A far superior mover and somewhat more versatile stylist, Kuznetsova clearly has the surface advantage over a player who depends upon her serve and return to seize immediate control of points.  Able to win few rallies with defense, Bartoli will aim to attack the Russian’s indifferent second serve while exposing her backhand.  Like Stosur and Ivanovic, Kuznetsova runs around her two-hander to unleash forehands in the belief that the firepower of her preferred groundstroke justifies the court territory that she surrenders.  Yet Sveta has struck impressive backhands throughout this tournament, so the Frenchwoman should refrain from adhering to that strategy too blindly.  Countering Kuznetsova’s psychological comfort at a tournament that she won two years ago is Bartoli’s superior poise at potential turning points.  No matter the outcome, though, Roland Garros will have produced at least one semifinalist whose hopes seemed as remote as Andorra a few weeks ago.

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain serves in his second round match against Ryan Sweeting of the United States of America during day four of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 20, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Nadal vs. Ferrer:  Impeccable in their last seven meetings, the world #1 has dropped just one total set to a feisty grinder who sometimes can match him in consistency but not in power.  But their most recent meeting at a major came more than three years ago at the US Open, where Ferrer eagerly chipped away at his ailing compatriot like an zealous, unsophisticated sculptor with a block of Carrara marble.  From that gritty upset followed the finest few months of the diminutive Spaniard’s career, including not only a semifinal appearance in New York but a finals appearance at the year-end championships after another victory over Rafa.  Somewhat tentative in the first few sequels after those debacles, Nadal gradually rediscovered his comprehensive superiority in their rivalry, jerking David from side to side with harshly angled forehands.

An indifferent ball-striker with an average serve, Ferrer relies upon fitness, consistency, and competitive ferocity to nibble away at his opponents until they depart for less demanding pursuits.  In a healthy, confident Rafa, though, he confronts an opponent who runs as tirelessly as he does, retrieves as doggedly as he can, and covets each victory even more desperately than he does.  Although intrigue might develop if Nadal struggles once again with the illness that hampered during the first week, his emphatic performance against Cilic boded ill for Ferrer and the other six quarterfinalists.  Not quite convinced that the Rafa Slam will become reality, we remain firmly convinced that the world #7 will not disrupt his compatriot’s chance at history any more than Wawrinka succeeded in undermining Federer.

Dolgopolov vs. Murray:  In recent seasons, the Australian Open has featured a surprise success story in the men’s draw, and the charismatic Ukrainian became the flavor of the season with a rollercoaster five-set upset over world #4 Soderling.  Our first extended glimpse of Dolgopolov during that encounter left us with respect for his resilience but an ambivalent impression of his game.  Able to generate raw power as effortlessly as anyone, the only unseeded quarterfinalist can slap winners from anywhere on the court and often left the Swede flat-footed with his deceptive, compact strokes.  And yet his unrefined sense of point construction also spawns senseless unforced errors in shoals when his timing falters by just a fraction.  Likewise, Dolgopolov’s serve displays a fluid ease uninterrupted from toss to follow-through, but its technique lacks the structured precision of the ATP’s most formidable deliveries.

In contrast to Murray’s four feckless victims, the Ukrainian clearly has the ability to hit through him from the baseline when at his best.  Across the best-of-five format, the Scot remains vulnerable to ball-bruising, erratic foes who can spray groundstrokes for extended periods but survive to marshal their unruly weapons at crucial moments.  Toppled by volatile shot-makers like Verdasco, Cilic, and Wawrinka at hard-court majors, Murray nevertheless has looked as imperious this year as he did in 2010.  The world #5 likely will seek to stay within his counterpunching comfort zone for one more round until Nadal forces him out of it.  But will he leave that cozy haven if Dolgopolov reproduces the sporadically scintillating form that battered Tsonga and Soderling, or will he hope for his challenger to self-destruct?  If he has learned from his previous defeats at hard-court majors, he will choose the former approach.

Kim Clijsters - 2011 Australian Open - Day 8

Radwanska vs. Clijsters:  Twice clawing herself back from the edge of the cliff in this tournament, the petite Pole erased a double-break deficit in the final set against Date before swiping aside two match points against Peng.  Seemingly untroubled by the injury that nearly forestalled her entry here, she continues to unhinge the WTA’s baseline-bound journeywomen but did not face a top-50 opponent en route to her second Melbourne quarterfinal.  The competition spikes abruptly when she confronts the three-time US Open champion, although Clijsters has displayed somewhat less than commanding form in her last two matches against Cornet and Makarova.  Unable to exploit the early nerves of those untested opponents, the Belgian listlessly watched a first-set lead evaporate before collecting herself in the tiebreak.  

A sturdier competitor than Cornet or Makarova, Radwanska will capitalize upon any uneven blemishes on the third seed’s game, which otherwise should prove amply sufficient to dispatch her.  During the Pole’s stirring comeback over Peng, we observed her growing eagerness to step inside the baseline and punish mid-court replies, formerly an area in which she had struggled.  If she can master her counterpunching instincts to finish points with offense, her deft, wily finesse will become ever more lethal and unpredictable for her foes.  Less encouragingly, her chronic negativity also resurfaced with wails of dismay when rash forehands found the net.  A heavy underdog in her duel with Clijsters, Radwanska cannot afford to succumb to defeatism as she has in past clashes with the Williams sisters.

Kvitova vs. Zvonareva:   Igniting or perhaps reigniting their careers during the same fortnight, the 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist and 2010 Wimbledon finalist have split their two previous meetings with equally lopsided scorelines.  This statistic should not surprise, for both the Russian and the Czech bring moody, passionate personalities to the court that erupt in bursts of either positive or negative energy.  Despite the gap in their rankings, Kvitova has looked sharper for most of the tournament as she rifled forehand winners down the line and hooked them cross court at angles that only lefties can create.  The third consecutive Czech southpaw to face the world #2, her superior first-strike power should enable her to capture the initiative in rallies and dictate play from the baseline for better or for worse.  Aiding her in that endeavor is a versatile serve that can pinpoint both corners of each service box.

Much as she did against Kvitova’s compatriots and the emerging Jovanovski, Zvonareva will play intelligent, high-percentage tennis designed to expose her opponent’s inconsistency.  Can the Czech answer the challenging questions that the Russian poses?  More often than not, Zvonareva’s carefully engineered all-court game outlasts the sparks that fly from her shot-making foes, but her elevated ranking also stems from her talent at trading defense for offense when an opportunity arrives.  Like Li Na, her strength lies in her lack of a glaring weakness for opponents to target, buttressed as she is by symmetrical groundstrokes, a generally sturdy (albeit recently shaky) serve, and suffocating court coverage that has improved even further since her ankle surgery.  Nevertheless, this tougher, more confident Czech will not bounce as easily as the two before her.

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The 2010 version of Melanie Oudin, Cibulkova remains the only unseeded player in either US Open draw after an astonishing upset over 2004 champion Kuznetsova.  Despite her diminutive stature, the charming Slovak displayed impressive ball-striking authority in that match and often outhit the more powerful Kuznetsova from the baseline.  Relying upon her low center of gravity to absorb an opponent’s pace, Cibulkova now confronts the most promising member of her generation.  Yet perhaps Wozniacki already has graduated from “next” to “now” by scoring her first win over a former #1 in the previous round; three more victories will not only secure the Pole-Dane a maiden major but assure her the #1 ranking.  Even while suffering back issues two weeks ago in New Haven, Wozniacki eased past Cibulkova to extend a streak in which she has won seven consecutive sets from the Slovak.  The tournament’s surprise story has defeated the top seed only once and has won two or fewer games in four of the last six sets that they have played.  An indifferent server and modest returner, Cibulkova lacks sufficient shot-making audacity to challenge an opponent whose consistency can match hers.  Unless Wozniacki experiences a post-Sharapova hangover or experiences an untimely injury, one can’t imagine that anything other than a routine straight-sets win will unfold.  Whereas she played her more comfortable role of counterpuncher against Maria, though, she will need to assume the less familiar role of aggressor in order to progress efficiently here.  Since the world #2 shouldn’t be seriously threatened, we hope to see her take a few more risks in preparation for sterner challenges ahead.

Kanepi vs. Zvonareva:

When this season began, only the most brilliant fortunetellers could have predicted that these two players together would reach more Slam quarterfinals than Clijsters, Henin, and Sharapova combined.  After Wickmayer crammed a bagel down the Estonian’s throat in the fourth round, she displayed unexpected tenacity by edging through a tight second set before cruising through the decider.  Having squandered six match points against Kvitova in her Wimbledon quarterfinal, she will be eager to erase that disappointment in the final eight at the Open.  Across the net stands the All England Club finalist, who delivered a powerful statement of intent in a crushing rout of up-and-comer Andrea Petkovic on the same court that she departed in a tearful fury last year.  Blossoming just when her countrywomen are wilting, Zvonareva recently has found the balance between patience and aggression on these fast courts, which suit her balanced groundstrokes.  The Russian has coped expertly with the added expectations fostered by her Wimbledon exploits after desultory weeks in San Diego and Cincinnati.  While Kanepi possesses a much more potent serve and first-strike power, Zvonareva has honed crisper technique; moreover, she showcased an intelligent sense of court positioning and point construction during her earlier matches.  Formerly known for her negativity, she demonstrated confidence by pumping her fist to celebrate especially sparkling winners.  Perhaps the only significant cause for concern was her struggle to close out Petkovic despite a massive lead, which led her to drift into passivity during the last two games.  If the match stays close late in sets, we’ll be intrigued to observe whether she stays aggressive or retreats both physically and mentally.

Monfils vs. Djokovic:

Seeking a fourth consecutive US Open semifinal, the third seed historically has played his best Slam tennis in the city that most suits his ebullient personality.  During convincing victories over Blake and Fish, his game elevated several notches above his pedestrian performances in the first two rounds.  Yet the alignment between personality and venue also could describe the flamboyant Monfils, who has carved a career out of mind-boggling athleticism and mind-numbing gaffes.  More fabulous than feckless in New York so far, the Frenchman revealed a bit more sensibility and poise in a well-crafted win over his equally fabulous and feckless compatriot Gasquet.  Recognizing his foe’s mental frailties, Monfils played the scoreline adroitly and raised his focus for the most critical points, not a trait typically associated with this enigmatic competitor.  The slick surface notwithstanding, both players cover the court with exceptional ease, likely leading to more elongated rallies than one normally sees at the US Open.  Monfils and Djokovic also share a taste for unleashing massive forehands at opportune and maybe less opportune moments, so their crisp movement will be mingled with startling shot-making off their stronger sides.  Although the Serb doesn’t attempt outright winners as frequently off his backhand, his two-hander comprises more of a weapon than the Frenchman’s; he might consider forcing his opponent into his forehand corner in order to open up the backhand side.  Steadily enhancing his net skills, Djokovic should attempt to curtail the rallies with forays into the forecourt, but he must venture there only behind a compelling approach, for Monfils can uncork some improbable passing shots.  If the match becomes a battle of attrition with marathon baseline exchanges, the third seed’s ever-suspect fitness might waver under the afternoon sun.  Nevertheless, Djokovic should rely upon his greater experience in the latter rounds of majors to prevail over his less motivated challenger.

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Soderling vs. Federer:

Reprising his memorable quarterfinal with Federer from a year ago, Soderling hopes to recapitulate his Roland Garros upset of the GOAT, which snapped the latter’s record-breaking Slam semifinal streak.  On the other hand, the Swiss legend fancies the beginning of a new streak here with a bit of revenge served as a garnish. Once feasting on ball-bludgeoning baseliners with limited versatility, Federer has found himself the hunter rather than the hunted in recent meetings with Del Potro, Berdych, and Soderling.  With the addition of coach Paul Annacone, however, he has begun to answer their aggression with aggression of his own, attacking his backhand more vigorously and exploiting opportunities to approach the net more frequently.  Through his first four rounds, he hasn’t dropped a set and has been dragged into only one tiebreak.  Somewhat more tested during the first week, Soderling watched a two-set lead evaporate in his opener and required four sets to pulverize Spanish jackrabbit Montanes; on the other hand, his annihilations of Dent and De Bakker equaled anything that Federer has produced so far.  In last year’s quarterfinal, the Swede dug himself an immense early hole with unfocused, diffident play through the first set and a half.  By the time that his artillery found its range, the five-time champion had settled too far into his comfort zone to be greatly disturbed by his opponent’s late charge, although Soderling did battle his way within a point of a fifth set.  Should he deliver the same brand of tennis that he showcased in the third and fourth sets of the 2009 quarterfinal, the 2010 quarterfinal will become a classic to remember.  Facing the sport’s greatest player under the intense lights of Arthur Ashe, though, will he control his nerves and his inflammable temper to measure his groundstrokes with the necessary precision and control?  For that matter, will Federer experience any uncertainty as he faces a recent Slam nemesis?  The mental dimension should be as intriguing as the physical dimension in this collision, which says quite a bit considering the savage thunderbolts and stylish ripostes with which the sledgehammer Swede and the stylish Swiss dazzle their audiences.

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After Day 10, just ten players will remain in the 2010 US Open..  Who will survive to live another day, and who will ponder wistfully what might have been?

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We’re going to break down the whys and wherefores of the women’s semifinals just as we have the previous matches, but first there’s a background narrative to tell.

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Celebrating the 2008 Australian “glam Slam” final almost as enthusiastically as we did, the marketing moguls at the WTA (What’s Tennis, Anyway?) wondered complacently whether this season would become the Year of Maria or the Year of Ana.  Much to their chagrin, 2008 and 2009 would instead become the Year(s) of Anarchy, featuring six different #1s, seven different titlists at the Slams and the Olympics, multiple losses by #1s to players outside the top 100, and so many bizarre bits of “history” that nothing seemed historic anymore.  One #1 retired with a massive lead atop the rankings, another #1 disappeared for 10 months with a career-threatening shoulder injury, a third #1 squawked “Why am I such a chicken?” during a Slam final, and a fourth #1 explained away an embarrassing Wimbledon defeat with “woman problems.”  In this endless comedy of errors, the annual year-end championships seemed less a competition to decide who was the best player of the year than a manicure-endangering fistfight over who was the best player of this week, this day, this hour, right now at this nanosecond.  After a rebuilding period in the latter stages of 2009, the WTA breathed a sigh of relief as order looked about to be restored in 2010 following the comebacks of two Belgians and a Siberian.  The Williams sisters would no longer be required to stand guard over the sanctuary alone.

In fact, everything did unfold more or less according to plan early this year, despite the dismal departures of Clijsters and Sharapova during the first week in Melbourne.  Serena and Henin reinvigorated their fierce rivalry in a memorable, tightly contested women’s final that trumped its men’s counterpart for the first time in recent memory.  A few weeks earlier in Brisbane, the two Belgians had reignited their own equally fierce rivalry with a scintillating final that remains one of the best women’s matches of the year so far.  Although alarm bells jingled faintly when Clijsters and Henin crashed out of Indian Wells prematurely, everyone knows that odd things happen in the California desert, where bald old men defeat Nadal and Roddick to win titles.  Reinforcing the identification of Indian Wells as an anomaly were the stirring runs of Venus, Clijsters, and Henin in Miami; despite the horrific final, the organizers got the matchup for which they had hoped, so the new Roadmap seemed vindicated.  When the surface shifted to European clay, observers expected irregularities to abound, for the elite women (other than Henin) feel least secure on this surface and devote the least effort to it.  Consequently, it was more charming than disturbing to witness the startling achievements of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai.  When we reached Roland Garros, though, there was a sense that the magnitude of a Slam would separate the contenders from the pretenders again.  It did indeed; the contenders went home to lick their largely self-inflicted wounds, while the pretenders frolicked around the court in delirious glee.  (Nothing against the achievement of Schiavone, who fully deserved her title, but the marquee players had a job to do and didn’t do it.)  After the conclusion of the clay season, however, the WTA could be forgiven for anticipating Wimbledon with relish, for conventional form generally prevails in these most traditional surroundings.  As everyone now knows, those expectations proved hopelessly unfounded, in part as a consequence of a lopsided draw (ahem, Wimbledon seedings committee) but in no less part as a consequence of appallingly lackluster performances by those who ought to know better (ahem, Clijsters and Venus).  Considered four-fifths of the WTA elite, the quartet of Venus, Clijsters, Henin, and Sharapova have recorded just one total semifinal among them at the first three majors of the year.  The remaining fifth now carries the responsibility of preserving credibility for the established order in women’s tennis by winning two more matches on the lawns of the All England Club.  Since Serena bears that burden alone, it’s no surprise that her shoulder was taped on Wednesday.  

With that context in mind, we turn to the women’s semifinals at Wimbledon…

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Zvonareva (21) vs. Pironkova:  Amidst widespread reports of Russia’s demise as the dominant WTA power, Zvonareva has bravely upheld her nation’s honor by reaching the semifinals in both singles and doubles.  This unexpected heroine demonstrated uncharacteristic mental tenacity by rebounding from adversity more than once in her quarterfinal victory over Clijsters.  Hampered by untimely net cords as she failed to serve out the second set, Zvonareva contained her disappointment and broke the Belgian a game later.  In the third set, however, the eighth seed conveniently dropped her own serve rather than compelling the Russian to serve out the match, so one remains unaware of how she would have responded to that ultimate challenge.  Unfailingly positive and poised throughout her absurdly one-sided win over Venus, Pironkova looked like a much more mature, experienced player than the trembling cannon fodder who offered no resistance whatever against Sharapova at last year’s US Open.  Remarkably, she looked as though she expected to win and showed barely a flicker of nerves even as the finish line approached.  Earning break points in all but two of the second seed’s games, the world #82 returned overhead after overhead, swing volley after swing volley with improbable retrievals; Zvonareva must prepare to win the point two or even three times instead of assuming that one penetrating groundstroke will suffice.  Pironkova’s knack for placing balls in awkward locations thus proved startlingly effective on a surface where defense traditionally has reaped few rewards. 

Like the Russian, the Bulgarian strikes her backhand more crisply than her forehand, which has a loopier swing relatively low in power.  Therefore, it’ll be intriguing to observe whether each player attempts to target their opponent’s weakness in forehand-to-forehand rallies or play to their own strengths in backhand-to-backhand exchanges.  Vera has looked sharper on cross-court shots than on down-the-line forays, whereas the opposite preference characterizes Tsvetana.  Generally more of a counterpuncher than a puncher, Zvonareva must leave her comfort zone to create her own pace, for Pironkova rarely hits anything that would incur a speeding ticket on a motorway.  While the Russian covers the open court with the alacrity of a Clijsters or a Jankovic, her weak ankles hinder her ability to reverse directions, so the Bulgarian would do well to hit behind her and keep her off balance.  Average behind their first serves, both players struggle with second serves and should seek a high first-serve percentage rather than overly risky deliveries.  All the same, we should see fewer short points and more breaks than one might expect on greass, for Vera and Tsvetana often project more power behind their returns than their serves.  Just as a previous victory over Venus infused the Bulgarian with confidence, her commanding win over Zvonareva in last fall’s Moscow tournament will inspire her to believe that her miraculous run can continue.  Businesslike and purposeful as the underdog against Clijsters, how will the Russian react to the role of the favorite in what is only the second Slam semifinal of her career?  While the magnitude of the occasion may prevent both players from delivering their best tennis, Zvonareva possesses the physical edge, while the Bulgarian enjoys the mental edge.  Pironkova doesn’t need to step as far outside her normal game as does the Russian, although the world #82 has reached just two semifinals in her career and is seeking her first final at any level.  Wimbledon would be a decent place to start. 

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Serena (1) vs. Kvitova:  For the second straight day, a volatile Czech shotmaker takes aim at the top seed and defending champion.  Crushing Kvitova during the first week of the Australian Open, Serena rarely struggles against lefties.  At the US Open last year, she emphatically defused Hungarian southpaw Melina Czink in the second round.  Unless Kvitova connects consistently on sweeping wide serves into the ad court, there’s little that she can do to prevent the top seed from seizing immediate control of the rallies.  Meanwhile, Serena’s own serve has reached record-breaking heights here for the second consecutive year, allowing her to be broken just twice in the tournament.  Can Kvitova match her hold for hold over the course of even one set?  She would have to deliver an even more resounding performance than during her dominant wins over Azarenka and Wozniacki, both of which featured bagels.  Not known for mental tenacity, the Czech should wilt beneath the pressure of Serena’s resounding serve, unless the top seed’s arm bandage portends something very serious indeed.  Asked whether she had a chance to record the upset of a lifetime, Kvitova bluntly said “No.”  That response should tell you all that you need to know about the second semifinal, which should be short and sweet for Serena.  Do keep an eye on that shoulder, though.

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Far from the most shocking upset of the fortnight, Federer’s loss to Berdych registered only mild surprise around here, certainly less than the demises of Venus and Roddick.  Rarely in vintage form throughout his favorite tournament, the defending champion sounded uncharacteristically graceless and grumpy during his press conference, unwilling to grant Berdych more than a few scraps of credit for the victory.  Perhaps his most concerning statement, however, was the defensive assertion that consecutive quarterfinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon constituted quite a decent performance.  Federer’s fans should hope that he doesn’t internalize those rationalizing sentiments, for such complacency would severely hamper him against a host of hungrier opponents.  As was the case after the epic Wimbledon loss to Nadal in 2008, the new world #3 will be one of the most intriguing storylines at the US Open, which will indicate where (if anywhere) his career goes from here.  Can Federer reinvigorate himself again as he did two years ago?  Or has the evolution of tennis into an ever more physical, baseline-rooted sport left his elegant, all-court game behind?  There will be no answers until September, which permits us plenty of time to ponder.

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Almost exactly a year ago today, Robin Soderling trained his bone-crushing artillery on the four-time defending champion of Roland Garros and accomplished the greatest upset in tennis history.  The Swede now attempts to depose another defending champion at the citadel of clay, while Federer can claim a new, moderately significant record by progressing into the semis:  passing Sampras’ total number of weeks at #1.  Considering that their lopsided head-to-head stands at 12-0 for the Swiss, one would think that a 24th consecutive semifinals lies well within his grasp.  Yet Soderling has inched increasingly closer to snapping that streak of futility, forcing Federer four tiebreaks in the last six sets that they have played (all at Slams) and dragging him within one point of a fifth set at last year’s US Open.  The two adversaries have lost just one of twenty-five total sets in the first four round here, so expect an extremely high-quality encounter including very few service breaks.  Allowing Del Potro to lure him into a baseline shootout midway through the US Open final, Federer will be in trouble if he adopts the same tactics here; Soderling is one of the few players who possesses the raw power to hit through him even on clay.  Instead, the Swiss must attempt to showcase his expert net skills and biting backhand slice.  A liability against Nadal, the backhand oddly might prove valuable than his legendary forehand in disrupting the Swede’s timing.  Soderling must preserve his patience in extended rallies rather than pulling the trigger too early, for he has enhanced his consistency over the past year and now doesn’t need to end points as quickly.  Donating meek opening sets to Federer in two of their three Slam meetings last year (6-1 at the French and 6-0 at the US Open), he’ll want to bring his full intensity to the very first point.  We anticipate plenty of aces and service winners, more short points than normal in a clay match, high-risk tennis from Soderling, high-consistency tennis from Federer, and a fiercely contested victory for the top seed—perhaps in four sets.

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Lacking a clear contender, the second quarter of the draw seemed likely to produce an unexpected hero, but ultimately no great surprises emerged from that section.  In search of his first career Slam semifinal, Berdych exceeded our expectations not so much by defeating Isner and Murray as by the composed, routine manner with which he dismissed both threats.  Did Miami really witness the birth of a mature, poised Tomas who can showcase his best tennis on the biggest stages?  By no means a finesse artist, he’ll rely on his massive serve-forehand combinations to outhit Youzhny.  Meanwhile, the Russian will profit from the extremely slow surface on Lenglen to perhaps prolong more points than he could on Chatrier and gain time to ingeniously construct points in his distinctive style.  (Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion:  you can find a lengthy profile on Misha among the older entries on this blog.)  Reaching the US Open semifinals a few years ago after defeating Nadal, Youzhny has more experience with these circumstances than one might imagine.  Generally not a factor on clay, he has enjoyed a significant resurgence this year by reaching finals in Rotterdam and Dubai while posting wins over Monfils, Djokovic, and Wawrinka.  The head-to-head is extremely even at 6-4 in Youzhny’s favor; they’ve split their two clay meetings and their last four meetings overall.  We anticipate plenty of momentum shifts, blinding forehands by the Czech, exquisite one-handed backhands by the Russian, some ghastly errors from both players, and a debut semifinal appearance for Berdych.

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Having required three hours to work her way through a heaping plate of penne(tta), Wozniacki encounters Flavia’s Fed Cup teammate Schiavone.  Less powerful but more crafty than her compatriot, the 17th seed showcases a flamboyant one-handed backhand that reveals her natural talent just as Wozniacki’s steady two-hander reveals her dedicated work ethic.  On paper, the Pole-Dane should prevail rather comfortably, but remember that not only her ankle but her thigh may be questionable.  Effective against Kirilenko in the previous round, Schiavone’s slice might test those aching limbs if she can employ it consistently.  Another potential advantage over the Dane is her excellent net play, honed after years of experience in doubles.  Almost exactly a decade older than Wozniacki, Schiavone doesn’t seem to have many other options with which to counter the third seed’s bulletproof defenses, although she did win their only meeting in late 2008.  The Italian’s gritty (haha) tenacity often benefits her against youthful, inexperienced opponents, yet Caroline has amply demonstrated her own resolve on repeated occasions, so don’t expect her to crumble as did her friend Azarenka when facing Schiavone at last year’s US Open.  We anticipate multiple breaks of serve, some very, very long rallies, many more errors than winners, and a two-set win for Wozniacki (if her ankle / thigh / [insert body part here] permit).

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Petrova characterized all-Russian duels as well as anyone during her post-Venus press conference by describing them as “battles to the death.”  Sometimes they seem more like exercises in mutual suicide, however, with both players paralyzed by nerves and donating hideous errors to each other’s cause.  Clashing in last year’s Wimbledon quarterfinal, Dementieva and Petrova did contribute a respectable three-setter, so perhaps they’re less troubled by the atmosphere of intra-national competition than some of their compatriots.  Their head-to-head stands squarely even at seven wins apiece, two wins apiece on clay; while Elena has won the last four meetings, the last three all have reached a final set.  Although we were highly impressed with Petrova’s clutch serving against Venus, Lenglen will take a little of the edge off her serve as it did off Roddick’s delivery.  If Dementieva can work her way into the rallies, she has the more consistent game and superior movement to outlast her compatriot.  Don’t forget that she also is hampered by leg injuries, however, which troubled her against Wozniak in the third round and could undermine her ability to win an epic such as this match threatens to become.  And can she hold serve often enough to put pressure on Petrova?  Even on one of the slowest courts in the sport, she can’t break Nadia constantly.  It’ll be intriguing to observe whether Petrova can create opportunities to approach the net, where she enjoys a high comfort level, or whether Dementieva can keep the match mired in her own comfort zone behind the baseline.  We anticipate plenty of mental fragility, plenty of Russian imprecations, great offense by Nadia, great defense by Elena, and a three-set win for a Russian.  (Ha!)

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Hope that you found these previews thought-provoking.  Don’t hesitate to let us know if you have something to say…or shriek.

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