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Straddling the Ocean: Monte Carlo / Charleston Semifinal Preview

Twice the queen of Indian Wells, Daniela Hantuchova startled us on Friday by intercepting second-seeded Jankovic’s seemingly tranquil trajectory towards the Charleston final. It was a pleasant surprise, though, for we’ve always enjoyed watching the cultured, multilingual Slovak and have sympathized with her struggles to master her nerves at crucial moments, most notably the 2008 Australian Open semifinal against Ivanovic. Since we’re straddling the Atlantic Ocean during this joint semifinal preview, moreover, we thought that the longest legs in women’s tennis might help us pull off this balancing act! :)

MONTE CARLO:

Djokovic (1) vs. Verdasco (10): The Serb may wish to sharpen his Spanish, for he’s the only semifinalist who doesn’t share a country of origin with Rafa. Their head-to-head stands at 5-2 in Djokovic’s favor, including a labyrinthine three-set win in the quarterfinals last year and two other 2009 victories; Verdasco hasn’t defeated the Serb since 2006, when Novak was less known for his tennis than for dubious medical timeouts. Reaching the final four without dropping a set, Djokovic appears to have regained his confidence after a dismal Indian Wells / Miami campaign, but his inner demons always lurk just around the corner. Charting a more turbulent course towards the same destination, Verdasco played his best tennis when it mattered most against Berdych but inexcusably handed Montanes a second life in the quarters. If Saturday’s match becomes a war of attrition centered around stamina, he may rue such profligacy.

Although both players will want to win efficiently in order to conserve energy for a clash with Nadal, we suspect that this wish may not be fulfilled. Eager to embrace (and sometimes create) mid-match drama, the top seed possesses a mentality well-designed to prevail in a suspenseful semifinal with multiple momentum shifts. Pick: Djokovic (75-25).

Ferrer (11) vs. Nadal (2): How much difference does an “o” make? Having defeated Ferrero in the quarters, Nadal now trains his formidable artillery on Ferrer in the third all-Spanish match contested here in the last two days. Ferrer hasn’t lost a set in four matches while knocking off the likes of Ljubicic and Kohlschreiber, building upon the momentum that he accumulated from a sturdy Miami run. Meanwhile, Nadal looked almost sadistically single-minded in consecutive humiliations of De Bakker and Berrer before smoothly navigating a resurgent Ferrero. During the North American hard courts, increasingly frequent flashes of vintage Rafa emerged amidst some oddly less assured play; nevertheless, the clay has visibly boosted his confidence already. After sustaining consecutive hard-court losses to Ferrer in 2007, Rafa has reeled off five consecutive victories over his compatriot, including three on clay and one just a few weeks ago in Miami. At the source of the lopsided head-to-head lies their similar playing style. The two Spaniards play essentially the same tenacious baseline game, but Nadal plays it with more pace and more consistency, leaving Ferrer few weapons with which to threaten him.

For the first time in several years, Rafa has something to prove on this surface and won’t let his compatriot derail him. This semifinal should be much less dramatic than the other. Pick: Nadal (90-10).

CHARLESTON:

Wozniacki (1) vs. Zvonareva (7): For the second straight year, the dogged Dane seeks a green-clay sweep after capturing the Ponte Vedra Beach title. After an indifferent start in Australia, her last three tournaments have (somewhat) vindicated her elevated ranking; she followed an Indian Wells finals appearance with a creditable loss to Henin in Miami and the aforementioned championship a week later. At sea for much of the year, on the other hand, Zvonareva defended her Thailand title but fell quickly during her Indian Wells title defense and wilted against Justine in Miami. Tied at one after two meetings last year, their head-to-head illustrates the potential directions that this match could take. The Russian won comfortably during her sensational championship run in the desert, and the Dane survived excruciating cramps during a heroic, nail-biting triumph in Doha. If Zvonareva performs at her top level, she should win, but something less won’t suffice. Put another way, Vera’s best is better than Caro’s best, while Caro’s average is better than Vera’s average.

This matchup is very even and might well produce a third set. Zvonareva has a little more power, Wozniacki has a little more consistency, but otherwise both will be attempting to outmaneuver the other through extended rallies from the baseline; there won’t be many cheap points or many net approaches. One hidden variable that favors the Dane is the schedule. She’ll be playing at 1 PM (and on ESPN2) for the third straight day, while Vera played at night on Friday and in the morning on Thursday, so she might be a little off her rhythm. In a match so close on paper, such a seemingly trivial detail might matter. Pick: Um, uh, Wozniacki?? (55-45).

Stosur (5) vs. Hantuchova (8): Can yesterday’s upset artist craft another ambush? Arguably more accomplished in doubles than singles, Stosur has been as consistent as any WTA player since last year’s French Open, when she burst out of nowhere to reach the semifinals. Once embedded in the top 10, Hantuchova has endured more travails than triumphs over the last few years while also accumulating impressive doubles results with partners such as the recently retired Sugiyama. Their head-to-head is virtually irrelevant, for they haven’t met since 2006 (a quite different stage in both of their careers) and haven’t played on clay since 2003 (!). Not renowned for their movement, both of them will seek to play first-strike tennis that allows them to spend as much time as possible on offense while shielding their meager defensive skills.

The x-factor here is Stosur’s serve, the third-best in the WTA after Serena and Venus. If she can land a reasonable percentage of first balls and take immediate control of the points on her serve, she’ll hold with sufficient ease and regularity to keep Hantuchova under pressure in the Slovak’s service games; eventually, Stosur will break through if such is the case. But if the Australian finds herself reduced to strings of second serves, her asymmetrical groundstroke game and sub-par foot speed will be mercilessly exposed. Stosur believes that her serve alone wins countless matches for her, and we can understand why. Pick: Stosur (65-35).

***

Needless to say, we’ll be back when the Sunday lineups are set to preview both championship matches for you in detail, including head-to-heads, nuggets of advice for each finalist, and shot-by-shot breakdowns. In the meantime, enjoy the matches and this sensuous image of Ivanovic! :)

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