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Novak Djokovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Nine

Tsonga vs. Djokovic:  Buoyed by his victory over Nadal at Queens Club, the Frenchman has accelerated through this fortnight with an effort more sustained than any of his performances since the 2008 Australian Open.  Triggering memories of Tsonga’s brilliance on that occasion was his unprecedented comeback from a two-set deficit against Federer, whom he limited to only one break point throughout their quarterfinal.  As he served for the match at 5-4 in the final set, many would have expected the underachieving, acrobatic twelfth seed to falter under the magnitude of the moment.  But Tsonga did not flinch, thundering through a love service game to arrange a clash with a top-three opponent whom he has dominated.  Since losing to Djokovic in the Australian Open final three years ago, the Frenchman has reversed the trajectory of their rivalry by winning five of their following six meetings, most notably a five-setter in Melbourne last year.  In that jaggedly uneven encounter, the Serb’s notorious physical fallibility proved decisive.  Although Djokovic has solved those issues with a superior fitness program, the disparity in their serving effectiveness at this Wimbledon could prove a crucial factor.  Whereas Tsonga constructed an almost impenetrable fortress behind a startlingly high first-serve percentage, the Serb often endured tenuous service games at untimely moments in his quarterfinal against Tomic.  As he did last year against Berdych, Djokovic slipped into counterproductive passivity too often and should count himself fortunate to have avoided a fifth set.

In theory, the world #2 should acquire additional motivation from the opportunity to wrest the #1 ranking from Nadal with a victory over an opponent outside the top 10.  But will the pressure of potentially earning the top ranking weigh upon him, which it seemingly did during his sporadically listless defeat to Federer at Roland Garros?  During his one-loss first half of 2011, he has not faltered when defusing some of the ATP’s most imposing serves with his sparkling return.  In contrast to Tsonga’s reliance on his forehand, Djokovic can project equal offense from both groundstrokes, a vital advantage on grass that has contributed to his three Wimbledon semifinal appearances.  This groundstroke symmetry may counterbalance Tsonga’s more traditional grass-court style, centered around relentless assaults upon the forecourt.  Most comfortable when he controls the outcome of rallies, the Frenchman can grow tentative when forced onto the defensive, so Djokovic should not spurn openings to assert his baseline offense.  Displaying far greater nerve than expected against Federer, Tsonga likely will not fade should he encounter early setbacks but instead compel the Serb to deliver his most complete performance of the tournament so far.  If Djokovic does ascend to the pinnacle of the ATP on Monday, he will not have seized his laurel crown undeservedly.

Rafael Nadal - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Nine

Nadal vs. Murray:  Thwarted by the Scot at both hard-court majors, the world #1 has won all nine sets that they have contested at Slams on clay and grass.  Injecting elevated aggression into his game when he meets Nadal, Murray has troubled the Spaniard on faster surfaces by driving his cross-court backhand into the lefty’s forehand corner and creating an opening for a backhand down the line.  The stroke that has bedeviled Federer, Rafa’s skidding wide serve in the ad court slides into the strike zone of the fourth seed’s penetrating backhand return.  These issues of point construction did not prevent Nadal from recapturing the momentum in their rivalry with a spine-tingling epic at the World Tour Finals last fall, however.  Still a much superior player on the points that matter most, the top seed maintained his calm in the pivotal second-set tiebreak of their Wimbledon semifinal last year.  After Murray failed to convert the set point that he held on his serve, the two-time champion never offered him a second hope.  The least impressive component of the Scot’s otherwise complete arsenal, his second serve poses such a vulnerable target that he often faces a painful dilemma between striking his first serve with maximum velocity and concealing his Achilles heel by maximizing his percentage.  Once rallies begin, though, Murray can engage in longer, more grueling baseline exchanges with Nadal than any other opponent except Djokovic.  Deceptively fit and keenly focused, he dragged through a series of exhausting service games this year in sets that often stretched over an hour.

Largely untested by Lopez, the home hope should have arrived in this third straight Slam semifinal with his confidence soaring in proportion to his ten-match winning streak.  Murray has proven too fragile in that department against elite opposition, though, as demonstrated in his losses to Djokovic and Nadal at the season’s two previous majors.  While the crowd will exert themselves to the utmost in raising his spirits, the fourth seed must shed the memories of last year’s defeat to the Spaniard and curb his tendency towards morose self-loathing.  Yet Murray knows that he has succeeded against Nadal when the latter has lacked peak physical condition, and a concerning foot injury two rounds ago causes one to question whether Rafa can summon the explosive movement that has won two Wimbledon titles.  Beset by nagging injuries for much of his career, the world #1 has demonstrated an occasionally disconcerting imperviousness to discomfort.  Instead, Nadal seemingly thrives upon adversity and embraces challenges with a determination proportional to their rigor, an attitude shared by few of his rivals and that has contributed to his recent dominance.  Still searching for that elusive first Slam, Murray certainly can equal the Spaniard in talent measured tangibly through serves, groundstrokes, and volleys.  In overcoming an ankle injury to reach the Roland Garros semifinals, he revealed traces of Nadalian fortitude as well.  From those traces spring hope that Centre Court will host a classic collision on Thursday, during which Murray dogs the favorite’s footsteps deep into the London twilight.

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Victoria Azarenka - 2011 French Open - Day Seven

Li vs. Azarenka:  In her fourth Slam quarterfinal and second at Roland Garros, Azarenka eyes revenge against the player who halted her in Melbourne.  Since the fourth and sixth seeds possess markedly similar styles, the outcome of this baseline battle should hinge upon execution rather than strategy.  Striking their groundstrokes with relentless depth, both women own balanced assaults with slightly more reliable backhands than forehands but the ability to dictate play from either wing.  Gifted with a somewhat superior serve, Li faces an indifferent server and outstanding returner in Azarenka, so this quarterfinal should feature a host of breaks and closely contested service games like their Australian meeting.  The Chinese superstar has won three of their four previous encounters, demonstrating a firmer resilience that perhaps springs from her experience.  At this tournament, however, Azarenka has conceded no more than six games in each of her first four matches, while Li has found herself thrust into a pair of three-setters.  But the fourth seed has not faced resistance as stiff as the challenge posed by Kvitova, against whom the Chinese rebounded from a demoralizing first set and reversed her defeat to the Czech in Madrid.  Having conquered that recent bête noire, the Melbourne finalist may have gained the momentum necessary to expose any chinks in Azarenka’s armor, which have looked few indeed lately.  If she can pass this test of her confidence and maturity, the Belarussian will have taken a substantial step towards proving her ability to endure the pressures of a fortnight at a major.

Nadal vs. Soderling:  Threatening to become a Roland Garros tradition is the mid-tournament meeting between the feral Swede and the defending champion.  As he stalks into this third meeting with Nadal here in three years, Soderling will have scented an uncharacteristic degree of frailty from the Spaniard that should whet his appetite.  Both players have won their last 11 sets after first-round drama, although the defending champion has not performed as close to his finest level as has his challenger.  More willing to step inside the baseline in the fourth round against Ljubicic, though, Nadal displayed glimmers of escaping from the mental malaise into which consecutive clay defeats to Djokovic seemingly had cast him.  And few champions rise to the occasion as brilliantly as the Spaniard, fully aware of the danger posed by his opponent and likely to focus ever more keenly as a result.  After that memorable upset two French Opens ago, in fact, Nadal slowly regained his dominance over Soderling with two Slam victories last year during which he lost only one total set.  Nevertheless, the seemingly bulletproof Spaniard who stifled the Swede in the 2010 Roland Garros final scarcely resembles the uncertain, weary competitor who has struggled to consolidate service breaks over the past week.  Normally an outstanding front-runner, Nadal stands at a crossroads.  If Soderling charges to a second upset in three years, Rafa’s competitive vitality might ebb further at a crucial moment in the season.  If the defending champion can rekindle his familiar passion with an inspired, vintage triumph over a former nemesis, another spectacular summer still might lie ahead.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Nine

Sharapova vs. Petkovic:   A tribute as much to her perseverance as to her power, Maria’s fifth quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros pits her against her Australian Open nemesis.  Resembling a rollercoaster are the three previous collisions in their mini-rivalry, which began when Sharapova savaged the German’s serve in Cincinnati last year.  After Petkovic retaliated with an almost equally emphatic triumph in Melbourne, the Russian reeled off 11 straight games during their Miami semifinal.  Operating in a mode closer to digital than analog, the components of their games either click into breathtaking engines of offense or fragment into scattered shards.  Able to escape from erratic beginnings to two of her previous matches, Sharapova cannot rely on hammering her way out of a similar predicament this time.  Whereas Garcia had the weapons and lacked the mind to seal the upset, Radwanska had the mind and lacked the weapons, but Petkovic likely has both.  The three-time major champion thus must sharpen her precision from the outset while continuing the timely serving with which she frustrated the Pole.  Comparably convinced that the best defense consists of a potent offense, this pair should essentially impose their hard-court styles on the reluctant clay and contest rallies much shorter than those in the other semifinal.  Perhaps separating this encounter from the Melbourne meeting is Sharapova’s elevated confidence from capturing the prestigious Rome title.  But Petkovic also enters their quarterfinal with a nine-match winning streak after collecting the smaller Strasbourg event.  Shifted outside Chatrier for the first time in the tournament, Sharapova returns to the scene of her most memorable battles at this major:  her 2007 victory over Schnyder after saving two match points, her 2008 loss to Safina after holding a match point, and her stirring 2009 comeback against Petrova in just her fifth singles match after shoulder surgery.  Will Suzanne Lenglen witness another dramatic chapter in Maria’s quest for the only major that stubbornly resists her allure?

Murray vs. Chela:  Deterred by neither a sprained ankle against Berrer or a two-set deficit against Troicki, the fourth seed seeks his first semifinal at his least successful major.  Recognizing the opportunity presented by a second-week encounter with Chela, the Scot gallantly overcame the physical and psychological burdens posed by a two-day battle with the second Serb.  Few observers outside Argentina would have favored the orthodontically challenged veteran to reach this stage, which will have boosted his ranking into relevance.  If Murray’s ailing joint continues to trouble him, Chela might well duplicate Melzer’s almost equally startling route to the final four last year.  Not the counterpunching Scot renowned for his movement more than his shot-making, the fourth seed has demonstrated his latent offensive talents in his last two victories.  Thus, Chela may recoil in initial surprise from an opponent who boldly targets the lines with his groundstrokes and glides (or rather hobbles) towards the net when the opportunity emerges.  Confronting the Argentine is the dilemma of whether to craft his tactics around Murray’s much-publicized injury.  To that end, Troicki cleverly hit behind the Scot while compiling his vast advantage, testing the ankle’s mobility as its owner reversed direction on these slippery courts.  If not a facet of Chela’s regular repertoire, however, these gambits could distract him and lure him away from a straightforward, steady clay-court style that might prove sufficient if Murray’s improvised offense starts to unravel.

Li Na Li Na of China reacts after winning a point against Alisa Kleybanova of Russia during day five of the 2010 China Open at the National Tennis Centre on October 5, 2010 in Beijing, China.

Wozniacki vs. Li:  Converging for the second straight Australian Open, these baseline gladiators collaborated upon an especially ghastly fourth-round encounter here last year.  While Wozniacki uncorked just three winners, Li repeatedly shanked swinging volleys and struggled to place her first serve throughout a match that featured more breaks than holds.  Dragging each other into final sets in their two prior meetings, they mirror each other in areas such as their stinging two-handed backhands and unremarkable but reliable serves, which will lead to elongated rallies that showcase their exceptional movement and court sense.  Whereas Wozniacki favors consistency over aggression on a forehand heavy with topspin, though, Li often flattens out her forehand to target lines and corners more ambitiously.  Stretching opponents off the court laterally with acutely angled groundstrokes, last year’s semifinalist must counter the Dane’s tactic of pushing opponents behind the baseline with deep but vertically oriented gambits.

Curiously, the 20-year-old already has compiled far greater experience at the sport’s highest level than the veteran who opposes her.  With one Slam final already to her credit, Wozniacki displayed the self-belief born of that experience in her quarterfinal comeback against Schiavone.  Down a set and a break, the world #1 did not despair during a deuce service game that almost certainly would have sealed her fate had she not secured it.  With a tenacity that resembled champions of the past, she found a way to navigate through those murky waters and soon found herself rewarded as fatigue nibbled away at Schiavone.  In a contrasting manner, Li Na also has resembled past champions through her utter dominance over her first five victims, none of whom could pry more than six games from the relentless Chinese star.  Never a paragon of consistency, she has wobbled for no more than one or two games at a time throughout the fortnight.  Li regrouped immediately when early adversity struck in her victories over Azarenka and Petkovic, demonstrating an appetite for battle that she shares with her adversary.  We expect a tense war of attrition that will jangle the nerves of Piotr and Jiang before the steelier competitor captures a hard-earned berth in the final.

Vera Zvonareva Kim Clijsters (L) of Belguim and Vera Zvonareva of Russia pose before their women's singles final on day thirteen of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 11, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Clijsters vs. Zvonareva:  A script all too familiar to casual fans, this burgeoning rivalry between two of the top three players in the world reaches its third consecutive major.  Despite their equally lofty rankings, they have produced tepid tennis in most of their recent encounters, even excluding the unsightly US Open final.   The Russian has scored more substantial successes against Clijsters than anyone else during the Belgian’s comeback, however, and the medium-speed courts in Melbourne may tilt in her direction more than the slick surface in New York.  Increasingly accustomed to reaching the latter stages of majors, Zvonareva will have grown in self-belief with each resounding result, while the relatively relaxed atmosphere in Australia will soothe her easily awakened anxieties.  With no fatal flaws yet no striking strengths, she can ambush heralded foes like Clijsters only by maintaining focus, patience, and emotional resilience, all of which she lacked until less than a year ago.  Those traits played a central role in her three 2010 victories over the Belgian, who staggered through both third sets that they contested while Zvonareva stayed unspectacular but solid.

Even if the world #2 does curb her nerves, not an easy task in a Slam semifinal, she probably will need assistance from an opponent who can do everything that she does with just a trifle more polish and precision.  While the Russian has looked more composed and authoritative with each match, Clijsters looked invincible when she routed Safina in the first round but has grown distinctly more human with each round since then.  Over her last three matches, in fact, the Belgian has donated more than 100 unforced errors to opponents who still could not capitalize upon that generosity to steal a set from her.  Subject to more mental lapses than most champions, Clijsters continues to experience moments of negativity or doubt that can cloud her normally acute sensibilities and lure her away from the lucid point construction that has won her three major titles.  On a brighter note, she has won all three of the tiebreaks that she has contested here with minimal ado, whereas Zvonareva has struggled at times near the end of sets and matches.  Rather than the electric shot-making of the Williams sisters, Henin, and Sharapova, Clijsters and Zvonareva excel at absorbing pace and redirecting the ball.  Since their physical skills parallel each other so closely, as in the first semifinal, the psychological dimension probably will decide this encounter.  We expect many more unforced errors than winners as the exhaustive court coverage of both players coaxes their opponent into low-percentage shot selection.

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic - U.S. Open-Day 13

Djokovic vs. Federer:  Without Nadal awaiting the winner on Sunday night, this encounter becomes even more momentous than a typical Slam semifinal although not quite a de facto final.  Having split their previous four semifinals at hard-court majors, Federer and Djokovic both seek to build upon the confidence that they gained late in 2010, when the Serb’s Davis Cup heroics swiftly followed the Swiss legend’s march through the year-end championships.  Their US Open meeting reinvigorated not only Djokovic but this fiery rivalry, rife with savagely slashed forehands, improbable defensive retrievals, and epic rallies that sprawl both vertically and laterally across the court.  Among the key advantages that the third seed long has enjoyed over the second seed is the finest two-handed backhand in the ATP, which has hammered away at Federer’s vulnerable one-hander during the Serb’s victories over the Swiss.  Yet the defending champion has enhanced that lesser wing during the last several months, flicking cross-court winners at pivotal junctures during his victory over Nadal in London.  From our perspective, though, two-handers inherently possess greater penetrative capacity than their more elegant one-handed counterparts, so Federer cannot completely erase that power gap.

Snapping his streak of three straight US Open losses to the GOAT, Djokovic looked dazed with disbelief at his accomplishment despite having pounded his chest and pumped his fist with intimidating physicality throughout the final set.  Unable to summon the same fearlessness during his three fall clashes with Federer, the Serb lost six of the seven sets that they played in Shanghai, Basel, and London amidst shrugs and self-deprecating smirks.  The post-US Open malaise may have sprung in part from Djokovic’s focus upon the Davis Cup title as the fall events ebbed towards the anticlimactic conclusion in London.  Rather than basking in the glow of his December glory, the third seed has surged through the draw of the major that he won three years ago while conceding only a single set.  Comprehensively dominant against Berdych in the quarterfinals, Djokovic suggested that he may have recaptured the swagger that brought him to the US Open final as well as the Melbourne title three years ago.  A straight-sets victim of the Serb on that occasion, Federer looked chronically fallible in the first week before recording stunning service statistics a round ago against Wawrinka.  The defending champion will face heightened pressure from his opponent’s formidable second-serve return, however, which underscores the significance of his first-serve percentage.  And the suspenseful fifth set in their US Open semifinal might never have arrived had Federer not sagged in intensity for prolonged periods throughout the first four sets.  A far more experienced and somewhat more confident competitor than the Serb, he can avenge that defeat and reclaim the psychological edge in their rivalry only if he proves that he can maintain not just form but focus across a best-of-five encounter—an increasingly complicated challenge as the years drift past.

 

 

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Scoring a triumph for intelligence and versatility over raw ball-striking, these European stylists ousted the towering American duo of Querrey and Isner en route to their quarterfinal collision. Although the two-handed backhand may comprise a sturdier, more reliable weapon in the modern game, it’s a pleasure to watch a pair of one-handers showcase their graceful strokes.  An imaginative all-court artisan, Youzhny reached the US Open semifinals in 2006 after defeating a youthful Nadal.  Despite his lack of a dominant serve, the Russian can create depth and pace on both groundstroke wings, which has benefited him this fortnight as much as his crisp footwork.  More comfortable at the net than Wawrinka, he should exploit this advantage by gliding forwards when an especially penetrating groundstroke thrusts his opponent off balance.  On the other hand, the Swiss #2 possesses greater first-strike power, a more intimidating serve, and superior fitness, factors that might play a role if the match extends deep into the New York afternoon.  During their victories over the American mastodons, both European players displayed a few tremors of nerves just as the match lay on the verge of sliding irrevocably into their grasp.  Leading by a set and 5-1 against Isner, Youzhny somehow found a way to lose five straight games and ultimately the second set, allowing his foe to regroup and temporarily claw his way into the match.  Much the same scenario unfolded for Wawrinka a round later, when he squandered set point after set point while serving for a two-set lead that would have permanently deflated Querrey.  Denied those opportunities, he unraveled perceptibly albeit briefly and thus extended his exertions that day much longer than necessary.  Buoying the Swiss, however, is his electrifying, comprehensive win over title contender Murray in a match that revealed far greater poise under pressure than he demonstrated Querrey .  Both players have lived most of their careers far from the limelight, reaching just a single Slam semifinal between them (Youzhny’s aforementioned achievement).  Will the momentum from Wawrinka’s improbable run take him to hitherto unexplored heights, or will Youzhny channel the magic that brought him within two wins of a major title four years ago?  Although neither the Swiss nor the Russian enters serious ambitions of capturing the 2010 US Open, their exploits in New York have restored them to relevance and constructed a foundation upon which they can build in 2011.

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Just seven Slams ago, Spain’s two foremost lefties engaged in one of the most thrilling five-set matches outside the context of the Federer-Nadal rivalry.  Ending anticlimactically in a double fault, that Melbourne marathon coupled the tenacity from Nadal that we have come to expect with an unexpectedly gritty effort from Verdasco, who rallied from a two-sets-to-one deficit to charge within six points of the Australian Open final.  Since then, however, Rafa has reasserted the balance of power in the non-rivalry with his compatriot by smothering him in three clay meetings.  Seizing only one set from the world #1 outside that memorable collision in Melbourne, Verdasco typically has slammed his way out of their matches with reckless, mindless abandon that sometimes suggested an undercurrent of fatalistic despair.  Shot for shot, no area of his game except the serve ever was superior to its counterpart in Nadal’s game, including the formidable forehand that misfired at key moments in their previous ten clashes.  Note the was in the previous sentence, for now even Rafa’s serve has ascended to a level unequalled by Fernando at his best; on the same night that the world #1 extended his streak of consecutive holds to 61, the second-best Spanish lefty mingled 11 double faults with his 90 unforced errors during a victory as unsightly as it was suspenseful.  Yet Soderling’s 0-12 record against Federer dissolved in stunning fashion at Roland Garros this year, so Verdasco’s 0-10 against Nadal could conclude just as magnificently.  Central to the difference between those situations, however, is the divergence between the personalities of the Swede and the Spaniard.  Slipping gleefully into the spoiler’s role, Soderling appeared to derive intense satisfaction specifically from dashing the title hopes of those above him in the tennis hierarchy.  By contrast, the gentle Verdasco seems content with his status midway down the pyramid and generally displays deference to his superiors.  A second straight quarterfinal in New York should satisfy his modest ambitions unless Nadal evinces any uncharacteristic early frailty.  With a coveted career Slam (and career Golden Slam) just three wins away, the five-time Roland Garros champion should bring his keenest focus to the challenge before him.

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The top three women’s seeds all have marched into the semifinals; will the top three men’s seeds join them there?

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For once, form held in the women’s tournament as the two seeded players expelled their unseeded challengers from these fabled lawns (not without considerable effort, to be sure).  Will the upset genie now shift to the men’s tournament, where a pair of mini-upsets look somewhat plausible?  We explore the less than insurmountable tasks confronting each underdog as they collide with the two players who will tower above the ATP rankings next Monday. 

Berdych (12) vs. Djokovic (3)

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Winning 14 of his last 15 sets here after dropping two of his first three, Djokovic has proved one of the more pleasant surprises at this year’s Wimbledon.  After an indifferent beginning to 2010, by his lofty standards, the Serb has regained the focus, competitive intensity, and purposefulness that defined his most impressive performances in 2007 and 2008.  Although his fitness briefly faltered against Hewitt, he dispatched the surging Yen-Hsun Lu with merciless efficiency rather than the slothful apathy with which he had approached such overmatched opponents for most of this season.  Djokovic’s serve has steadily improved throughout the fortnight, as has his movement on the grass and his confidence on his forehand; the Serb’s return to an exclusive coaching partnership with Marian Vajda after an experiment with Todd Martin may have aided him in rediscovering his poise.  In his two previous encounters with the Czech, he did not drop a set and looked distinctly superior in every department except the serve.  Yet the 2010 incarnation of Berdych barely resembles the flimsy competitor who often struggled to harness his massive game and who lacked belief against elite adversaries.  Ignited by a spectacular breakthrough in Miami, Tomas has reached the semifinals at the next two Slams while scoring five victories over top-10 opponents.  His previous win over Federer preceded two more impressive wins over Verdasco and Soderling, so he clearly won’t rest content after Wednesday’s historic triumph. 

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At the core of this compelling clash will be the first serves of both players, for Berdych’s indifferent movement leaves him at a disadvantage during second-serve points, while the Czech’s crushing return of serve would punish an excessive number of second balls from Djokovic.  Pinpointing a difficult backhand volley on break point in the fourth set, Federer’s nemesis not only revealed his newfound poise under pressure but his improved skills in the forecourt, where once one would expect him to donate senseless errors.  Both the Czech and the Serb will prefer to wage this contest from the baseline instead of the forecourt, however.  Whereas Berdych must play first-strike tennis and pull the trigger as early as he can, Djokovic would be best advised to work himself into the rallies, at which point he can wear down his foe by stretching him laterally and forcing him to attempt low-percentage shots over the high part of the net.  Consequently, note the length of the points to determine who holds the upper hand, for shorter exchanges favor the Czech almost as much as longer exchanges favor the Serb.  Much less fluid than the third seed, Tomas remains awkward when reversing direction and thus would be susceptible to balls hit behind him.  Although Berdych possesses a reasonably solid two-handed backhand, Djokovic holds a definite edge in that area; he should enjoy superior court positioning because he won’t be tempted to run around that side as often as will Berdych, who distinctly trusts his forehand more on significant points.  Only moderately efficient in break-point conversions against Lu, the Serb will need to take advantage of whatever opportunities he sees against the Czech, since he’s likely to find far fewer openings.  Will the power and first-strike explosiveness of Tomas or the movement and all-court style of Novak prevail?  While Berdych is slightly better suited to grass tennis, Djokovic holds the mental advantage from their head-to-head as well as his greater experience late in majors.  In addition to tracking down more balls than did Federer in the quarterfinals, he transitions more smoothly from defense to offense.  On the other hand, he has been frustrated by formidable servers such as Roddick in the past, so he’ll need to control his emotions as the aces zip by him.  The match should be decided by a small handful of points, and the more courageous player who takes the initiative more often should advance to the final.  Therefore, the relentlessly aggressive Berdych might well record another upset if his serve continues to crackle; if it doesn’t, Djokovic will once again expose the inconsistencies in his opponent’s relatively one-dimensional game.

Murray (4) vs. Nadal (2)

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Despite the Spaniard’s firm lead over their head-to-head, the Scot has won their last two Slam meetings at the 2008 US Open and the 2010 Australian Open.  In fact, that first victory was the only best-of-five match that Nadal lost between the 2008 Australian Open and the 2009 French Open.  On both of those occasions, the seven-time Slam champion inspired Murray to unleash far more aggressive tennis than we’re accustomed to watching him produce.  Famous for counterpunching his way into opponent’s weaknesses, he ripped two-handers with authority, served aggressively, and charged into the forecourt with conviction to finish points.  Nevertheless, Rafa routed the Scot in their only grass meeting here two years ago, which followed the home hope’s enthralling but exhausting triumph over Gasquet.  Surrendering one solitary set during his first five matches, Murray has established himself as the best player of the fortnight by a considerable margin, but Nadal will have gained valuable momentum from his quarterfinal victory over nerve-jangling nemesis Soderling.  Both players will know that this semifinal should prove a sterner test than the final, which enhances the pressure on these two players and especially Murray.  Already a bit tense in his quarterfinal against Tsonga, the Scot needs to draw confidence rather than anxiety from the maelstrom of World Cup-worthy fervor with which his compatriots will deluge him.

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Like the Djokovic-Berdych match, this encounter might turn upon the lower-ranked player’s ability to deliver penetrating first serves without sacrificing consistency.  Probably the most glaring weakness in Murray’s generally impeccable game is his second serve, which Nadal should be ready to attack.  During the Australian match, Andy not only struck some of his most potent deliveries on the most crucial points but varied the placement of his serve and his tactics behind it, even serving and volleying at times.  He can’t afford to allow Rafa any baseline rhythm, for neutral rallies will favor the Spaniard’s greater stamina and less risky shot selection.  Although the Scot continues to lack the single offensive weapon that can finish points with a single blow, his forehand has looked a little zippier during this fortnight (especially cross-court), and his shots often gain extra sting from the adrenaline of playing in his home Slam.  Moreover, Murray must pounce upon Nadal’s own second serve in order to keep the world #1 off balance and perhaps persuade him to choose percentage over pace on the first serve.  While the Spaniard will attempt to engage in the protracted, long-distance rallies that have suffocated so many foes, the Scot should position himself at or inside the baseline whenever possible, seeking to take time away from Rafa.  We expect Murray to record more aces, winners, and unforced errors than Nadal, who will rely upon crisp returning and scintillating passing shots to mute the fourth seed’s offensive combinations.  Breaking Soderling’s formidable delivery five times during their quarterfinal, Rafa will enter this contest primed to excel in both of those categories.  The world #1 should punish the fourth seed for any patches of carelessness or tentative approach shots and (unlike Tsonga) will compel him to hit at least one volley when he enters the forecourt.  Since both players move with outstanding agility and return serve arguably better than anyone in the ATP, one might witness a few more breaks than in most men’s matches on this surface.  Famed for his gritty determination, Nadal will scratch and claw until the last stroke of the last points, so an early deficit won’t unnerve him; curiously, he has trailed by a set or by two sets to one in three of his five previous matches.  The early stages will be more vital for Murray, who not only feels the expectations of a nation upon his shoulders but will be overcoming the memories of his loss to Nadal here two years ago as well as his loss to Roddick in the same round here last year.  On the other hand, the Spaniard represents a dramatically different challenge from the American and has looked much more mortal here than in 2008.  Will Murray find the fortitude to achieve his long-awaited Slam breakthrough this weekend, or will Nadal consolidate his possession of the top ranking with a tenth major final?  The challenge here is more mental than physical.  If the Scot stays positive, maintains his focus, and adheres to the game plan that smothered Rafa in their last two Slam meetings, we think that he’ll become the first British man to reach the final since 1938.  If he wavers in either his execution or his self-belief and drifts back into his counterpunching comfort zone, however, Nadal should take advantage and reawaken the inner demons that have thus far forestalled Murray from claiming a major. 

And, of course, Rafa can count on Shakira to assist in whatever way she can.

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Since both of these matches seem extremely even affairs, we’d be surprised if either of them ended in a routine straight-sets scoreline.  Featuring a variety of playing styles and personalities, the semifinals will provide a snapshot of what men’s tennis will look like after Federer, just as Indian Wells provides a snapshot of what women’s tennis will look like after the Williams sisters.  Will the sport belong to relentless ball-bludgeoners like Berdych, mercurial entertainers like Djokovic, crafty artisans like Murray, or indefatigable competitors like Nadal?  A first set of answers will come on Friday.