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Andy Murray - 2011 US Open - Day 7

Young vs. Murray:  One of four American men to reach the second week, the USTA’s prodigal son has delivered the most surprising sequence of victories.  Inciting a sudden surge of hope, the formerly discarded Young upset Wawrinka in a fifth-set-tiebreak encounter that may have represented a crossroads in his career.  Just as important was his ability to follow up that potential breakthrough with a convincing victory over Chela, a veteran who could have exploited a novice’s hangover.  But Young has tantalized fans before by launching putative breakthroughs before slipping back into frustrating underachievement.  At Indian Wells this spring, for example, he stunned a listless Murray in straight sets with opportunistic play and deft touch in the forecourt.  Then, he won just three games from the pedestrian Robredo.

When he enters Arthur Ashe for the first time in his career, this charismatic American will gain courage from the enthusiastic support of his compatriots.  A similar dynamic could not vault either Christina McHale or Sloane Stephens to unexpected victories, however, while Murray will relish the prospect of revenge.  Reversing his Miami defeat to Bogomolov during the US Open Series, the Scot will fancy his chances of halting Young’s aspirations with the same steady, stingy game that has proved impregnable against all but the most volatile shot-makers.  Still without an imposing serve, Young will not win many free points from his delivery and thus will engage in rally after rally during his service games.  Few players can outmaneuver or outlast Murray when at his best, for the Scot displayed his unsurpassed fitness once again in a five-set comeback against Robin Haase.  As his victory over Lopez proved, the fourth seed does not struggle with the distinctive traits of a lefty style, and Young cannot trouble him from behind the baseline.

Muller vs. Nadal:  Extending the world #2 to two tiebreaks at Wimbledon, the pride of Luxembourg even held set points against the Spaniard in the first set.  His wickedly slicing lefty serve threw Nadal off balance on the skidding grass, yet Muller has spent much of the season at the challenger level upgrading his ranking inside the top 70.  A quarterfinalist in his last appearance at the US Open, three years ago, he has found these fast hard courts suited to his serve-volley tactics in upsets over baseliners like Almagro and Davydenko.  Recovering from a one-set deficit against Los Angeles champion Gulbis, Muller has won all three of his tiebreaks at this year’s US Open and probably will concentrate upon holding his serve until he reaches the thirteenth game.  This (very) poor man’s Karlovic should not threaten Nadal in most return games, allowing the Spaniard to settle into a rhythm that will elevate his confidence.

Short of confidence for most of the summer, Rafa will have mounted in self-belief after a victory over Nalbandian that included a pair of tightly contested sets.  After he fell behind almost immediately, the second seed unleashed some of his vintage passing shots to recoup his losses.  His signature shot at many of his victories over Federer, those passing shots will prove vital to his efforts in dispatching this opponent without undue drama.   If the breeze continues to whip around Arthur Ashe, the conditions should favor the player who strikes balls with greater margin and relies less upon a single point-ending blow.  Often most vulnerable in the early rounds of majors, Nadal has benefited from a comfortable draw that has enabled him to settle into the tournament.   Unless Muller serves at an exceptionally high percentage, the defending champion will chip away at his questionable fitness and even more questionable consistency until his rough-hewn game crumbles.

Ferrer vs. Roddick:  When they collided in a Davis Cup quarterfinal this year, neither the home crowd nor the fast indoor surface could salvage a set for Roddick against the ATP’s most notable grinder.  Back in the top 5 as Soderling staggers, Ferrer left scant impact upon the US Open Series but rolled through the first week while conceding only a solitary set.  Even on hard courts, the Spaniard has earned repeated success against the American with two 2007 victories at Masters 1000 tournaments.  His expert returning skills should defuse Roddick’s dwindling serve, no longer the mighty juggernaut that intimidated all but Federer.  Despite the serve-friendly surface in New York, the 2003 champion has won his first three matches more through consistency and court coverage than by immense serving.

Having played only two matches since Wimbledon, Roddick seemed relieved to have reached the second week at the US Open for the first time in three years.  He has progressed to this stage past a pair of Americans and the erratic Benneteau, competition much less challenging than the tenacity with which Ferrer assaults his opponents.  Although his serve remains arguably the worst in the top 20, this fearless Spaniard will reap rewards by pounding his inside-out forehand into the American’s backhand corner, which produces few penetrating shots and virtually no offense.  In order to impose himself upon Ferrer, Roddick must flatten his forehand to add the additional jolt of pace that can carry it past this dogged retriever.  Outside his serve, he will struggle to either outhit or outlast the Spaniard without adopting a more aggressive attitude and striking the ball earlier than he has shown for most of this season.  On the stadium where he lifted the trophy eight long years ago, can Roddick recapture the explosive hitting that won him his greatest achievements?

Kerber vs. Pennetta:  One of these lucky women will become a Slam semifinalist for the first time.  On the other hand, Pennetta has earned this opportunity not just with luck but with an unexpected level of determination that caused a major upset over Sharapova and a minor upset over Peng.  Overcoming bouts of fallibility and a wobbly stomach in the latter match, the Italian now eyes a formerly anonymous lefty in her first Slam quarterfinal.   Unfamiliar to all but the most dedicated fans, Kerber has spent most of her career toiling on outer courts, in qualifying draws, and in tiny events scattered around the world.  Yet she has plowed through a section once inhabited by Kvitova and Radwanska, defeating the latter opponent in three sets.  The German lefty’s serve and cross-court forehand curl effectively towards a right-hander’s backhand corner, but Pennetta moves smoothly in that direction and should withstand that modest pressure comfortably.  A former quarterfinalist in New York, she has tasted victory against both of her potential semifinal opponents in important match, but she cannot afford to think too far ahead against an adversary who defines the cliché “nothing to lose.”  Unlike her previous two victories, Pennetta enters this match as the clear favorite.  How will she respond to this different dynamic?

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 US Open - Day 7

Zvonareva vs. Stosur:  In one of the oddest head-to-head records among the WTA top 10, Stosur has won her last seven meetings with the 2010 US Open finalist.  Seemingly unnerved by the Australian’s heavy serve, Zvonareva mastered a similar test with aplomb when she dismissed the equally imposing serve of Lisicki.  Striking her groundstrokes more confidently than she has since the Australian Open, the world #2 pinned her opponent behind the baseline with suffocating depth.  Although Lisicki did little to ruffle Zvonareva’s fragile nerves, she responded calmly to a potential turning point when she faced triple break point early in the second set.  In contrast to her flustered exit at Wimbledon, her US Open performance to date has not suggested that she feels undue pressure to repeat last year’s result.

Finally relevant again after a dismal first half, Stosur built upon reaching the Rogers Cup final to record inspired victories over a pair of Russians, Petrova and Kirilenko.  Able to run around her meek backhand with surprising success on this fast surface, the former Roland Garros runner-up has inspired comparisons to the leading men with her serve-forehand combinations.  Once she gains the ascendancy in a rally, her opponents have struggled to survive more than a few of her explosive forehands.  In Zvonareva, however, she confronts a mover more agile and a ball-striker more solid than either of her two previous victims.  Likely to test Stosur’s lateral movement, the Russian should display the pace and placement necessary to expose that well-concealed backhand.  By contrast, the Australian should attempt to close off points at the net whenever she gains the opportunity, preventing Zvonareva from restarting the rally.  If their exchanges last more than a few shots, the Russian’s superior footwork and consistency should snap her seven-match losing streak against Stosur, who may lack energy after enduring consecutive marathons in the previous two rounds.  If this match also escalates into a final set, however, one might hand the psychological advantage to the Australian.

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Roger Federer - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Seven

Tsonga vs. Federer:  Unexpectedly mortal at times in his four-set victory over Youzhny, Federer nevertheless arrived in his 29th consecutive Slam quarterfinal and must eagerly await the opportunity to erase the memory of last year’s defeat to Berdych.  This year, a similarly potent server awaits the six-time Wimbledon champion, but Tsonga failed to threaten the GOAT in their only previous Slam meeting while winning only one of their five previous collisions.  In that bizarre Canadian encounter, Federer squandered a double-break lead in the final set as his focus visibly ebbed.  Since such a lapse surely will not occur at his favorite tournament on the calendar, the Frenchman must replicate his outstanding form of the past two rounds in order to avoid another barely competitive loss to the Swiss.  Parrying Tsonga’s serve with the same reflexes that he has displayed against Roddick, Federer generally has neutralized his greatest weapon and trapped this volatile shot-maker behind the baseline.  The former Australian Open finalist overwhelmed Ferrer in all dimensions of the game, however, showcasing a more balanced offense than usual.  For nearly two full sets of his quarterfinal against Murray last year, he dominated an opponent with a more versatile, complete arsenal through the straightforward power that prospers on grass.  Then, just when a two-set lead edged within range, Tsonga suffered an untimely brain cramp that reversed the match’s trajectory.  While he escaped similar lulls against Dimitrov this year, he cannot expect to survive them against a top-five foe.  Clearly gifted with the weapons and athletic ability to upset the third seed, perhaps his greatest challenge lies in maintaining his concentration throughout what might become a very long engagement.  Unless Tsonga wins swiftly, his odds of victory will diminish sharply.

Murray vs. Lopez:  Far from a tranquil progress past overpowered opposition, the home hope’s route has proved riddled with obstacles from the first round onwards.  Losing his first set of the tournament and nearly extended to five sets against Ljubicic, Murray now faces the player whom his mother has nicknamed “Deliciano.”  “Delicioso” certainly described the gaudy statistics that Lopez registered in his startlingly routine straight-sets victory over Roddick, who never found a solution to the conundrum of his lefty serve.  More encouraging for the breathless British fans was the Spaniard’s desperate struggle for survival against Kubot in the following round, during which he recovered from a two-set deficit in a grueling epic that may have eroded his fitness.  Arguably the finest returner in the ATP, or perhaps tied with Djokovic for that honor, Murray rarely has met a serve that he cannot crack.  Thus, Lopez cannot rely entirely on that cornerstone of his game, nor can he depend upon approaching the net behind anything less than an outstanding approach, considering the Scot’s exceptional passing shots.  Since his strengths play into the hands of his opponent’s greatest weapons, the Spaniard probably must hope to open the match in such convincing style that Murray grows discouraged and apathetic.  But a scintillating victory over Gasquet will have bolstered the fourth seed’s ever-fragile confidence, while the Wimbledon crowd support appears to raise his spirits rather than weighing upon them.  Although their previous meetings have featured several reasonably competitive spans, Lopez has won only one of nine sets from Murray and has lost both of their tiebreaks.  Twice a semifinalist at Wimbledon already, the Scot has not fallen to anyone other than a former finalist there since 2006.

Tomic vs. Djokovic:  Still just a teenager despite his global notoriety, the precocious Aussie defies the stereotypes associated with ATP giants.  Rather than an overwhelming serve, a preference for short points, and mediocre movement, Tomic displays a balanced, flowing game sometimes compared to the model of Murray.  With that versatility can come indecision over which weapon to choose at a certain moment, and Tomic sometimes falls prey to that dilemma.  Similarly, he triggers memories of a much more talented Fabio Fognini for his tendency to meander through rallies of moderately paced shots before suddenly unleashing a scorching groundstroke past a befuddled opponent.  Although he defeated only one genuine contender (Soderling) during his quarterfinal surge, Tomic surrendered a set in only one of his four victories while illustrating his ease in all areas of the court.  In contrast, the second seed has struggled with his movement here after deciding to omit his normal grass-court tournament.  Dropping only a single set through four matches, though, Djokovic has served more convincingly than at past Wimbledons and has evinced a more aggressive mentality, unruffled by the end of his winning streak.  Since Tomic views his opponent so respectfully, one wonders whether he will enter their quarterfinal with the same steely poise that fueled his earlier victories.  And one also wonders whether the Serb will view this meeting with a hint of complacency, unconvinced that his 18-year-old admirer can summon the nerve to threaten him.  Even if Djokovic does, however, the prospect of the relatively raw Tomic winning three sets from a two-time major champion looks remote indeed.

Nadal vs. Fish:  Surviving not only Del Potro but a foot injury on Monday, the defending champion aims to repeat his victory over the American in the first round here four years ago.  Despite substantial improvements in his fitness and consistency since that encounter, Fish remains a relatively one-dimensional player who cannot threaten the Spaniard unless he serves to perfection.  In the fourth round, he did serve nearly to perfection against 2010 finalist Berdych in a victory notable for its lack of noteworthiness.  Destined to reach the top 8 after Wimbledon, Fish consistently threatened the Czech’s imposing serve while displaying no trace of insecurity that might have arisen from his recently elevated ranking.  The American did win a set from Nadal when they last played at the US Open, varying the direction and spin on his serve in addition to approaching the net at the earliest opportunity.  Since those strategies succeeded in rushing Rafa out of his comfort zone, albeit temporarily, Fish should remind himself that his chances improve in direct proportion to the number of strokes that he strikes from inside the baseline.  His improved fitness notwithstanding, he does not rank among the players who can outmaneuver Nadal from the baseline but instead must attempt to disrupt his rhythm.  Surely relieved and invigorated by his victory over Del Potro, the world #1 will thrive on the increasingly scarred turf that surfaces in Wimbledon’s second week.  As clumps of dirt mix with patches of grass around the baselines, the ball skids through the court slightly less swiftly.  That factor should facilitate Nadal’s attempts to defuse Fish’s principal weapon, although he probably needs no such assistance.

Na Li - 2011 French Open - Day Seven

Li vs. Kvitova:  Enjoying the best clay season of her career, the Chinese superstar has erased the memories of her February-April swoon by reaching consecutive semifinals in Madrid and Rome before reaching the second week here.  Not without wobbles in her first two matches, she delivered her most comprehensive performance of the tournament in the previous round against Cirstea but must elevate her game several notches in order to survive the Madrid champion.  Already the proud owner of three 2011 titles, Kvitova crushed Li in the Spanish capital with her superior first-strike weapons.  On that occasion, the Czech’s powerful serve and return trumped the more fluid movement and more complete game of the sixth seed.  Both players can oscillate between the audacity of extreme optimism and the passivity of extreme pessimism, so this fascinating encounter might prove more one-sided than their rankings would suggest.  Pitting strength against strength are the exchanges between Kvitova’s cross-court lefty forehand and Li’s versatile backhand, strokes not only penetrating but consistent.  While the Czech still lacks the experience of the Chinese veteran, she also has fewer ghosts to haunt her mind when adversity strikes—and an example of lefty success in Paris on which to reflect.

Nadal vs. Ljubicic:  More fallible than his normal first-week self, Nadal finally earned a resounding win in the third round after a pair of protracted ordeals.  Having defeated Ljubicic en route to the Monte Carlo title, he perhaps can settle his palpable nerves against an opponent who will not startle him with anything unexpected.  Before the tournament began, few observers would have listed the Croat among the players who would reach the second week without dropping  a set, but the Croat has dethroned two seeds with impressive resolve.  Ljubicic can seize a flicker of inspiration from three-set victory over the Spaniard at Indian Wells last year, where his serve and flamboyant one-handed backhand discomfited a tentative Nadal.  Nevertheless, he never has won a set from Rafa on clay and has no department of his game other than the serve in which he can dominate him consistently.  Positioning himself too far behind the baseline in his first two matches, Nadal should plant himself more assertively inside the court, as he did against the previous Croat.  With Soderling soon to descend, the top seed needs an authoritative victory to restore his battered self-belief.

Simon vs. Soderling:  Thoroughly dominated by the Swede in Paris last fall, Simon pursues revenge on a court where his understated all-court game dazzled in dispatching Fish.  A triumph for a fox over a hedgehog, that match illustrated the Frenchman’s capacity to defuse a mighty serve and expose an opponent’s indifferent movement.  The two-time finalist presents a similar type of challenge, relying upon power to cloak his one-dimensionality, but Soderling’s arsenal can hammer opponents off even the slowest surface more swiftly than could Fish.  After an unimpressive opener, the Swede has won eight consecutive sets at the tournament where he first claimed fame.  If his illness and injury woes of the spring have receded, he will present a towering challenge to an opponent whom he never has faced on clay.  Confronted with the resilience of Simon, though, will Soderling maintain his focus and willpower?  The Frenchman cannot survive by trading blow for blow across five bruising sets, so his only hope rests in an optimistic start that flusters and discourages the Swede.  Although aggression does not come naturally to Simon, he must look for opportunities to attack Soderling whenever possible rather than letting him relax into a leisurely afternoon of target practice without pressure.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Seven

Sharapova vs. Radwanska:  Like the match that precedes it, this collision opposes one of the sport’s most percussive shot-makers against a clever counterpuncher with a crisp backhand and acute court sense.  Falling in this round at each of the last three Slams, Sharapova has not reached a major quarterfinal since Roland Garros two years ago and lost her only Slam meeting with Radwanska at the 2007 US Open.  Since that setback, Maria has swept her five encounters with the Pole to recapture the mental advantage. Brimming with confidence after a Rome title, the Russian probably will not donate the avalanche of hapless errors from which the Pole profited in New York.   Nevertheless, Radwanska has either won a set or forced a tiebreak in three of those five losses, troubling Sharapova with placement rather than power on strokes like her deep returns and artfully angled passing shots.  Like Simon, she must continue to assert her presence affirmatively whenever she can instead of mechanically retrieving Maria’s missiles.  Perched close to the baseline in the sets and matches when she has most challenged Sharapova, the world #12 can transition expertly from defense to offense.  If the three-time major champion continues to connect with a high percentage of first serves, though, she should earn frequent opportunities to plant herself inside the baseline while pinning her opponent behind it.  Equally vital is Radwanska’s first-serve percentage, for Sharapova should subject her benign second balls to unrelenting pressure.  Can the Aga Khan engineer a whirlwind of breaks, or will the Siberian siren maintain order in the court?

Makarova vs. Azarenka:  Intersecting for the fourth time in twelve months, the Russian and the Belarussian crafted a pair of memorable encounters in the last round of Eastbourne and the first round of Sydney.  Often baffled by lefties, Azarenka fell to Makarova in straight sets on grass while struggling to convert break points against a serve that veers sharply away from the returner in the ad court.  In a three-hour battle this January, Vika continued to struggle in that category but earned just enough success to eke out a Pyrrhic victory that drained her energy for the following match.  More encouraging for her prospects on Monday and thereafter was a routine victory over Makarova at Indian Wells.  The highest-ranked player remaining in Paris, the fourth seed has become the slight tournament favorite despite never having attained a Slam semifinal.  Visibly elated to conquer the unassuming Vinci in the third round, she must hold her emotions in check as a potentially career-changing breakthrough draws within range.  When opportunity has knocked before, though, Azarenka often has struggled to capitalize but instead has suffered meltdown or injury.  While Makarova possesses far less raw talent or competitive will, she represents the type of player who could expose Vika’s inner demons and test her (somewhat) improved maturity.

Murray vs. Troicki:  Hardly a contender when this clay season began, the Scot thrust himself into the conversation like his fellow Melbourne runner-up Li Na, scoring semifinals at two of the three Masters 1000 events.  In a depleted quarter, Murray can glimpse a first Roland Garros semifinal—if he can survive the ankle injury that he endured a round ago.  Illustrating his overlooked courage was his ability to win that match, far from its conclusion when he launched his ill-fated lunge towards the net.  The Scot forced himself to strike his groundstrokes more aggressively, revealing an offensive capacity that this innate counterpuncher seldom displays.  Especially notable was his forehand, often criticized as a weapon inferior to the parallel strokes of the top three.  As he had during his thrilling near-victory over Djokovic in Rome, Murray struck his weaker groundstroke with authority and precision.  The Scot must preserve those winning habits to escape this match, far from a certainty considering Troicki’s composed performance against Dolgopolov.  Perhaps relieved to dwell in the shadow of Djokovic’s success, the second Serb shares Murray’s preference for his backhand and tendency towards self-deprecation.  The survivor of this match will have little to bemoan, however, having earned a quarterfinal meeting with the distinctly undistinguished Falla or Chela.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia serves in his fourth round match against Nicolas Almagro of Spain during day seven of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 23, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Berdych vs. Djokovic:    Meeting on two notable occasions in 2010, their encounters spiraled in strikingly divergent directions.  In a Wimbledon semifinal, the Czech fired the first salvo with a comprehensive performance that cruelly contrasted his newfound confidence with the mental foibles that plagued the Serb throughout the first half.  Just a few months later, though,  Djokovic reversed the momentum emphatically with an emotional four-set victory in a Davis Cup semifinal that revealed his revitalized self-belief after his US Open surge while illustrated Berdych’s second-half slump.  With both contestants seemingly rejuvenated, spectators should brace themselves for an encounter more compelling than either of its prequels.

When at his best, the 2008 champion showcases a more complete game than last year’s Wimbledon finalist, who relies more heavily on his forehand despite improving his two-hander.   In addition to his more symmetrical groundstroke arsenal, Djokovic can unleash a lithe movement that trumps his opponent’s ungainly strides, although the surface will allow the Czech a shade more time to arrange limbs that resemble the Pillars of Hercules.   Nevertheless, Berdych has looked impressively poised during his first four rounds, especially when he defused the  volatile shotmakers Gasquet and Verdasco in straight (and straightforward) sets.  Unlikely to ever shed the reputation of mental unreliability, Djokovic slumped in his last two Australian Open quarterfinals after imposing first weeks, so one never knows when another stumble could occur.  The percussive serves of Roddick and Tsonga eventually eroded the Serb’s confidence on those earlier occasions, and Berdych will bring an equally potent weapon to the service notch.  But this surface offers an ideal venue for Djokovic’s ball-redirecting talents and his effortless transitions from defense to offense.

Wawrinka vs. Federer:  While one of these two Swiss players has dropped sets with a casual profligacy, the other has smothered opponents without dropping a set.  Those who didn’t watch the first week almost certainly would cast Federer in the latter role, yet in fact the defending champion has meandered into the quarterfinals in a pedestrian manner.  After a five-set rollercoaster against former nemesis Simon, Roger carelessly tossed a set to Robredo before dispatching the unassuming Spaniard.  Although his serve and net play have remained characteristically crisp, Federer’s groundstrokes have wandered out of his control for extended periods and shone rays of hope onto his opponents.  Quite the contrary, Wawrinka blistered winners from both wings and every corner of the court as he hammered Roddick out of Melbourne.  At the core of that relentless barrage lay a sturdy serve that allowed him to dictate rallies from the outset.  Since Wawrinka regularly threaded the needle with scintillating passing shots, Federer must time his forecourt approaches more judiciously than in his first few rounds.  The Swiss #2’s sole victory over the Swiss #1 came on clay at Monte Carlo, however, in a surface and a setting far from Rod Laver Arena.  Seemingly dulled by a career of subservient status, Wawrinka may not summon the audacity to overthrow his fabled compatriot at one of the calendar’s most prestigious tournaments.  If Federer looks mortal in the early stages, though, his long-time understudy now has the self-belief to exploit his fallibility.

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates a point in her third round match against  Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia during day five of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 21, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Wozniacki vs. Schiavone:  As “4:44” joins “70-68” in the lexicon of tennis lore, the 2010 Roland Garros champion has little time to wallow jubilantly in bottles of Barolo.  Like Berdych and Djokovic, Wozniacki and Schiavone collided in two starkly contrasting meetings last year.  En route to the Miracle on Clay, the Italian wove a spiderweb of slices, drop shots, lobs, and looping forehands around the flustered Dane, who revealed not only her ineptitude on clay but her strategic immaturity.  Just as resounding was Wozniacki’s victory at the Rogers Cup early in her outstanding second half; on that occasion, a jaded Schiavone failed to fracture her opponent’s bulletproof baseline.  With the exception of Vania King, the world #1’s adversaries have competed with her on relatively even terms for much of their matches but failed to capitalize upon openings when they emerged.  The ceaselessly alert Schiavone will not hesitate to strike if opportunity knocks, but significant questions hover above her fitness after the longest women’s match at a major.  Most dangerous when she can meticulously construct a rally, the Italian veteran may feel pressed to attempt a risky maneuver too early in a point if she has not fully recovered from her Sunday exertions, which seems likely.  Feasting upon reckless or impatient foes, Wozniacki stands especially well situated to profit from an opponent who scored a historic but Pyrrhic victory. 

Petkovic vs. Li:  A round after halting the ride of the Valkyrie, “Petkorazzi” contests her first Slam quarterfinal against an adversary seeking her second straight Australian Open semifinal.  A physically hampered Venus and a mentally absent Sharapova posed few challenges for the German, who has played just 18 games and 86 minutes of tennis since the second round last Wednesday.  Riding a nine-match winning streak, Li thoroughly dominated world #10 Azarenka with reliable serving and groundstrokes that skidded off the baseline, extracting benign mid-court replies.   A competitor nearly as intense as the Chinese star, Petkovic strikes her groundstrokes with equal conviction while bolstering them with a more formidable serve.  Whereas Li showcases one of the finest two-handed backhands in the WTA, the German has refined one of its more penetrating forehands.   This quarterfinal thus may hinge upon whether cross-court rallies pit forehand against forehand or backhand against backhand; both players strike their weapons extremely early and thus rarely concede the initiative in a rally once seizing it.  Contrasting with Petkovic’s extroverted personality is Li’s understated demeanor, which springs in part from her extensive experience on these momentous stages.  Bearing the scars of many memorable encounters as an underdog against elite contenders, she now has become an elite contender herself with an excellent prospect not only to win this match but perhaps to reach the final.  How will she respond to that status as a first Slam title lies so invitingly within her grasp?

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Invisible during the first week of this blog, the world #1 and top seed finally makes his “Bright Lights, Big City” debut on the eve of a night encounter with the only player who defeated him between April and July.  Vanquishing Rafa at Queens Club, Lopez narrowly evaded an early demise at the hands of a French qualifier in the second round but has shone under the lights here in the past.  Three years ago, the third-best Spanish lefty shocked the New York crowd by audaciously outplaying Federer for a set and a half before the GOAT finally punished him for his impudence.  Often relying upon retro serve-volley tactics, Lopez will seek to jolt Rafa out of his baseline rhythm and capitalize upon any shallow returns.  Mortal in the first two rounds against a pair of Russian juggernauts, Nadal appeared more comfortable on his least favorite surface in his victory over Simon.  He has played just one complete match against Lopez on this surface, prevailing in straight sets at their home Masters 1000 event in Madrid.  Addressing the primary flaw in his intimidating arsenal, the world #1 cracked some of the most percussive serves of his career and has reached the second week without being broken.  Moreover, the flat backhands that deserted him in his hard-court losses this summer has been finding its range more consistently.  A far steadier opponent than Lopez, Nadal will enjoy a significant advantage in any rallies longer than four or five shots, so he simply needs to survive the first few blows in their exchanges.  If Feliciano enjoys an exceptional serving day, he might eke out a set and pound his way into a tiebreak or two, but it’s hard to imagine him winning three sets from Rafa under ordinary conditions at a tournament of consequence.

Ferrer vs. Verdasco

Are we in New York or Paris?  Meeting for the third time in 2010, these two clay-loving Spaniards have faced each other ten times but only once away from their favored dirt.  Yet one should note that both Ferrer and Verdasco have reached quarterfinals at the US Open, David three years ago and Fernando last year.  Translating effectively to all surfaces, Ferrer’s splendid movement, fitness, and willpower even carried him past an ailing Nadal in New York en route to the 2007 semifinals.  On the other hand, he skirted baseline behemoth Gulbis during the first week in addition to hard-court nemesis Chardy.  Much more perilous was Verdasco’s route to this Tuesday appointment, which featured a tense opening collision with Fognini and a sturdy four-set victory over Nalbandian.  A few months removed from his hectic clay season, has Fernando finally rediscovered his energy and motivation?  Although he hasn’t fulfilled the promise that he displayed during the 2009 Australian Open, he can produce blinding winners from anywhere on the court and possesses much more first-strike potential than his compatriot.  Ferrer’s advantage rests in his superior consistency, court coverage, and mental tenacity, an arena in which Verdasco has struggled notoriously throughout his career.  On a fast court, his indifferent serve and lack of offensive weaponry may prove insurmountable shortcomings against a player who possesses both of them.  While Ferrer relishes his inside-out forehand, he may prefer to stroke that shot crosscourt in order to expose Verdasco’s backhand rather than targeting his compatriot’s might lefty forehand.  Since Fernando can’t target any particular weaknesses in David’s baseline game, he won’t want to engage in a war of attrition.  Instead, Verdasco should attempt to take command of the rallies as soon as possible and stretch Ferrer laterally with acutely angled groundstrokes.

Schiavone vs. Venus

Reprising a Melbourne clash with Venus, Schiavone hopes to fluster the elder Williams by varying the slices and spins on her artistic gambits.  In both Australia and Madrid, the Roland Garros champion won a set from the two-time US Open champion with intelligent placement and electrifying movement, only to fizzle in the next two sets as the vast gulf in their relative ball-striking power yawned.  In order to score her first career win over the American, Schiavone must remind herself to avoid slipping into the baseline slugging match as she unwisely did in Australia; perhaps reveling in her lead a little too much, she forgot what had established the lead in the first place.  Despite a tranquil first-week draw, Venus faltered on serve and committed more forehand errors than she can afford to donate against the stingy Italian.  Although her level rose a bit a round ago against Peer, erratic patches allowed the Israeli to stay within range longer than she typically does in her numerous meetings with the American.  Aware that Venus typically thrives on high-speed baseline exchanges, Schiavone must ensure that the third seed creates all of her own pace.  Dragging earlier opponents out of their comfort zones by exploiting the forecourt, she should think twice before luring the net-savvy American forwards.  A more profitable tactic might be to hit deep, looping balls down the center of the court, forcing Venus to construct low-percentage angles and testing her ever-suspect timing.  Unless Schiavone serves at a high percentage and hits consistently penetrating groundstrokes, Serena’s sister should forestall the evolution of extended rallies with ferocious serves and returns, not permitting her opponent the time to craft her clever combinations.

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Stosur vs. Clijsters

The clear co-favorite with Wozniacki, Clijsters has plowed through her first eight sets with the loss of just fourteen games.  Clearly, the pressure of defending the first major title of her comeback has not distracted the Belgian, who rides a 15-match winning streak in the US and an 18-match winning streak at the US Open (including 2003 and 2005 titles).  On the other hand, Stosur never had won consecutive matches in New York before this year, struggling to adapt her asymmetrical groundstrokes to the slick surface.  But the resurgent Aussie dazzled under the lights in her fourth-round victory over Dementieva, admittedly recovering from injury yet still one of her generation’s premier hard-court threats.  Saving multiple match points against the Russian, Stosur displayed greater confidence with her backhand and fearless aggression with her underrated forehand.  The best server in the WTA outside Serena, she will feel free to take risks on her returns in the knowledge that she can hold with ease on most occasions.  Or will she?  During a mid-match lull against Dementieva, Stosur dropped several service games in a row, and the rest of her game descended with her best shot.  Moreover, she hasn’t won a set in three previous meetings with Clijsters and has reached 5-5 in only one set.  Gifted with superb weapons on both groundstroke wings, the defending champion transitions swiftly from defense to offense.  Clijsters will hope to rely upon her counterpunching skills to withstand the Australian’s powerful forehand before breaking down her opponent’s backhand and movement.  Since both players are susceptible to absurdly flat patches of play even at their best, one wouldn’t be surprised to see a few peaks and valleys as the match progresses.

***

As the quarterfinals begin, keep your eyes on the ball to catch all of the intensifying action…

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Whereas the men’s tournament builds toward a magnificent climax, the women’s tournament skidded downhill towards a highly predictable conclusion after only one Williams sister survived the quarterfinals.  Joined by three players with a solitary Slam semifinal among them (Zvonareva—2009 Australian Open), Serena will swagger into the latter rounds with an immense edge in every physical and mental department.  Probably the greatest surprise of the tournament so far, meanwhile, was the premature demise of its five-time women’s champion.  No longer can commentators claim that Venus becomes a different player when she steps onto the grass; today, we saw every flaw in this legendary but aging game exposed as cruelly as on any other surface.  While her career wanes, the elder Williams sister has grappled not only with focus lapses but with wildly imprecise timing on her groundstrokes, a costly flaw in a game with such little margin for error.  This unreliability from the baseline places too much pressure upon her first serve and return to terminate points before rallies develop; a mediocre performance in one or both of those areas leaves her vulnerable to consistent, opportunistic opponents.  Moreover, a talent that long separated the world #2 from her rivals was her well-honed net prowess, yet she won just half of her net points in the loss today while displaying the indifferent forecourt footwork that has characterized her reverses this year.  Among the most telling elements of the upset, though, was its lopsided scoreline.  In three of her six defeats this year, Venus has won five or fewer games.  These embarrassments in Miami, Rome, and Wimbledon reveal her inability to alter a strategy that isn’t working, for she never has possessed a Plan B and has shown no inclination to craft one as her high-risk style grows progressively less dependable.  At this stage in her storied career, nobody can fault her for clinging to what has preserved her position at the summit of the sport for over a decade.  Nevertheless, the bizarre, seemingly inexplicable days when she suddenly can’t find the court will recur with increasing frequency, hindering her from adding to the seven majors in her collection.  Although Venus can win week-long WTA tournaments with sporadic brilliance, she can’t survive a fortnight’s supply of fiercely motivated adversaries without the mental fortitude and sturdy technique that have recently deserted her.  To be sure, Federer regrouped after losing his citadel on grass to recapture it a year later, so there’s a precedent for the elder Williams sister to again hold the dish that bears her name.  Perhaps the shock of this loss will thrust her from her complacent torpor into the competitive intensity that played a vital role in her five Wimbledon crowns.  But time is not on her side.

After a wayward (although far from dull) day courtesy of the women, will the top four men restore order in the court and advance to the semis?  Confronted with four highly formidable foes, they might not find the task as easy as they would hope.

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Federer (1) vs. Berdych (12):  Far from flawless in his first two rounds, Federer rediscovered his range during the next two matches and has dropped just 16 games in his last 6 sets.  Having fallen to a mighty slugger in his last Slam quarterfinal, Federer will find himself forced to solve the similar, slightly less formidable conundrum posed by his recent Miami nemesis.  Surging to his first career Slam semifinal at Roland Garros, Berdych enjoys a reasonable chance to match that accomplishment if Federer reverts to his early-tournament malaise rather than rising to the occasion as he typically does in the second week.  The Czech has progressed to this stage only slightly more compellingly than the top seed, for he dropped three sets in his past two matches against the anonymous Denis Istomin and Daniel Brands.  Whereas the defending champion’s form has steadily accelerated, therefore, his challenger’s form has dropped a bit.  Also in Federer’s favor is the best-of-five format, which allows him the time to rebound from an indifferent start while also providing his opponents greater opportunity to ponder the magnitude of a potential upset.  Almost as relevant to this clash as the Miami meeting this year, their 2009 Australian Open encounter witnessed the Swiss star’s stirring comeback from a two-set deficit; after dominating Federer in those first two sets, Berdych sharply declined thereafter as a result of mental insecurities and his inferior fitness.  Although the fitness remains an issue, the mental insecurities may no longer hamper Berdych, since his remarkable results in Miami and Paris appear to have silenced his inner demons.  (Or are they only temporarily silenced?  We might find out.)  The early stages of this match will be crucial for the Czech in order for him to implant doubts in the defending champion’s mind, a bit more frail in 2010 than in preceding years.  Much more adept at the net than his challenger, Federer should attempt to drag Berdych forward in uncomfortable circumstances while fearlessly venturing into the forecourt himself whenever an opportunity arises.  If Berdych can protect his serve and force Federer into tiebreaks, the top seed might well blink.  But he must slam the door as soon as possible before the Swiss can catch his balance.  Otherwise, the next Slam semifinal streak starts here.  Federer, 60-40.

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Tsonga (10) vs. Murray (4):  The Scot has won two of their three meetings, but it’s the Frenchman who won their most significant clash at the 2008 Australian Open.  In that first-round encounter, Murray remained locked in a passive counter-punching mentality while Tsonga took all the risks and reaped most of the rewards.  Over the last two years, the home hope has enhanced his aggressive skills to a perceptible extent but not sufficiently to outgun Roddick in a 2009 semifinal here.  Uncertain of his participation until shortly before the fortnight began, Tsonga has weathered a few unconventional, motivated foes such as Ukraine’s Dolgopolov and his compatriot Julien Benneteau.  The only player to reach the quarters without dropping a set, Murray has enjoyed a placid draw with the exception of the rising Sam Querrey, whose formidable serve rarely ruffled the fourth seed.  That fact bodes ill for the Frenchman, who relies upon a massive first delivery to set up his forehand and acrobatic net-rushing style.  Much less athletic than Tsonga, the Scot has achieved his accomplishments through intelligence, versatility, crisp footwork, and exceptional movement, an underrated advantage on grass.  While short points will favor the Frenchman, longer exchanges will shift towards the much more consistent Murray, armed with an exceptional passing shot that should blunt his opponent’s charges into the forecourt.  Moreover, the ingenious Scot will seek to construct backhand-to-backhand rallies in which he would enjoy a clear edge.  If Tsonga attempts to run around his weaker wing to hit a forehand, he would sacrifice too much court area to protect on this fast surface.  We wouldn’t be surprised to see an early wobble or two from the Scot, though, who did start tentatively against Querrey.  Nevertheless, Tsonga generally ebbs and flows during the best-of-five format, winning only one straight-setter thus far despite winning the first two sets in every round.  Whereas he can escape that streakiness (albeit narrowly) against most ATP journeymen, Murray should exploit the lulls that punctuate the Frenchman’s high-wire performance.  Like Berdych, Tsonga either will win this match in a hurry or not at all.  Murray, 70-30.

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Djokovic (3) vs. Lu:  The only unseeded player to reach the quarterfinals, Lu should not be discounted as he was by almost everyone before his five-set upset of Roddick in the previous round.  During that match, the Taiwanese star showcased lithe movement and flat, almost net-skimming groundstrokes that darted through the grass with greater pace than one might expect from his slim physique.  Equally impressive was the sturdy mentality with which he refused to wilt after wasting a chance to close out the match in the fourth-set tiebreak.  Nearly all observers would have handed Roddick the advantage in a no-tiebreak deciding set, but it was the world #82 who found his sharpest serves, zippiest passing shots, and deftest volleys when it mattered most.  Will he be mentally and physically weary following the most dazzling win of his career, however?  It’s not easy to score two massive upsets in a row, although Djokovic did fall prey to a career run from Melzer in the same round at Roland Garros.  Often struggling to raise his level against an exceptionally inspired opponent, the Serb might be vulnerable to Lu if his physical condition remains shaky as it was late in his gritty win over Hewitt.  On the other hand, that previous triumph will have prepared Djokovic for the playing style that he will face in the quarterfinals, since the Taiwanese challenger possesses most of the same strengths (tenacity, tennis IQ, court coverage, groundstroke depth) and weaknesses (serve, first-strike ability) as the Australian.  Underdogs like Lu are dangerous because they have nothing to lose, but Djokovic must approach this match with the same mentality; almost nobody has mentioned him as a genuine contender for the title here, yet he’ll be within a win of the final Sunday should he survive this match.  At the semifinal stage, anything can happen.  For the moment, though, the Serb needs to play with the same crisp, purposeful demeanor that characterized his previous victory and that must replace his energy-draining penchant for drama if he is to reaffirm himself as a Slam contender.  Business first, pleasure later.  Djokovic, 75-25.

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Soderling (6) vs. Nadal (2):  Arguably the juiciest of these four delicious confrontations, this clash reprises the French Open final just as did the Federer-Soderling fourth-rounder here last year.  Although the Swiss star reprised his straight-sets win over the Swedish behemoth that time, one senses that Nadal might not cruise so conclusively now.  Inciting the anxiety of his fans, Rafa request multiple medical timeouts during a mediocre first week that included consecutive five-setters.  He did look considerably more convincing in his last round against the mentally frail Mathieu, but the knees remain an ongoing issue about which he admitted his concern.  Ever eager to pounce upon a weakened adversary, Soderling reaped historic rewards a year ago when he battered a knee-troubled Rafa into submission, so he might well repeat the feat on Wednesday.  Of concern for the Swede’s supporters, though, was his erratic play and overt emotional turmoil during his five-set win over Ferrer, which disturbingly recalled the pre-2009 Robin.  In order to conquer the Spaniard in a best-of-five format, Soderling must prevent his temper from bubbling to the surface and concentrate upon bombing serve after serve after serve.  Unlike all other men’s contenders, his serve survived intact into the second set of his fourth match.  Predictably less invulnerable upon his own delivery, Nadal will rely upon his superb movement, reflexes, and instincts to transition from defense to offense after retrieving the Swede’s thunderbolts.  Not as many of those shots will return on grass, however, as they did on clay a month ago, so the world #1 needs to impose himself upon rallies with more first-strike tennis than he generally prefers.  Like Federer, Nadal should bring his net-averse foe forward in uncomfortable positions whenever convenient, for his passing shots have crackled through the court with authority lately.  The low bounce on grass hampers the lofty Soderling, who prefers a high strike zone for his groundstrokes, but it also lessens the topspin on Nadal’s heavy groundstrokes.  Neither the Spaniard’s beloved clay nor the Swede’s favored hard courts, this surface represents a relatively neutral battleground.  If the sixth seed serves brilliantly and the second seed moves brilliantly, this match is very even indeed.  Whoever wins should approach the rest of his tournament brimming with confidence after overcoming a redoubtable adversary.  Nadal, 51-49. 

***

Although we gave the Big Four the edge in each of these compelling matchups, somehow we suspect that at least one challenger will thwart the odds and embed themselves in Friday’s semifinals.  But who?  Answers to come…