The five-time defending champion was ruthlessly efficient again today, conceding just one game to an outgunned opponent for the second straight match. After a successful day of predictions on Thursday, all four of our projected semifinalists remain in contention for the first significant prize of the ATP clay season. But will they take the final step into precisely the Saturday matchups that we envisioned several days ago? Let's break down the action on Friday:
Djokovic (1) vs. Nalbandian: His expectations unquenched with a dramatic triumph over Youzhny, the evergreen Argentine posted an equally impressive win over the ultra-consistent Robredo. Meanwhile, Djokovic delivered some of his cleanest and most confident tennis since last fall when he routinely dismissed Wawrinka. Although the Serb has sometimes struggled against Nalbandian, his seamless movement and ability to rapidly transition from defense into offense should reap rewards on the clay. Expect a high-quality match filled with crisp ball-striking, audacious shot placement, and brilliantly bludgeoned two-handers. Pick: Djokovic.
Montanes vs. Verdasco (10): Credit Montanes for overcoming the surging Baghdatis and the formidable serve of Cilic, two opponents who would have overpowered the unseeded Spaniard on any other surface. Now, however, he faces a compatriot who also has enjoyed substantial success on clay; he'll need to retrieve as many balls as he can and hope for untimely erratic stretches from Verdasco. Soaring past an increasingly dangerous Berdych in the third round, the tenth seed exacted revenge against the player who had eliminated him from the previous two Masters 1000 tournaments; perhaps the most impressive feature of his victory was the mental toughness that he displayed after losing an airtight first set. A fraction of that toughness coupled with Verdasco's far superior power should spell a comfortable win. Pick: Verdasco.
Ferrer (11) vs. Kohlschreiber: Following a pair of routine straight-set victories, Ferrer crammed a bagel down the throat of the Indian Wells champion before edging through a second-set tiebreak. Already a titlist on clay this season (Acapulco), he should scurry and grind his way past the German, who exploited a woefully inept performance from Murray. His flowing shot-making skills should provide a scintillating contrast with the Spaniard's indefatigable counter-punching, but Kohlschreiber's game oscillates between peaks and valleys. He won't maintain the unflagging intensity and consistency required to topple Ferrer on this surface. Pick: Ferrer.
Ferrero (9) vs. Nadal (2): The competition abruptly spikes upward for Nadal, who confronts a fellow French Open champion and one of the tiny handful of players who has defeated him on this surface (Rome 2008). Nevertheless, that match featured a blisters-riddled Nadal who couldn't perform at a level remotely close to his capabilities. Although Ferrero displayed impressive grittiness during his win over Tsonga, he may be a little weary as a consequence of its bone-crushing rallies. On the other hand, Rafa exerted himself so little during his win over Berrer that he practiced after the match! A rested Nadal + a tired opponent = good news for Nadal fans. Pick: Nadal.
Just as in Monte Carlo, all four of our projected semifinalists in Charleston have reached the quarters, and we're sticking with the four girls whom we brought to the dance. Once the lineup there has been decided, we'll come back with a transatlantic preview of the semifinals in both events! :)