A day after deposing one of its leading denigrators, the blue clay reared again to strike down the other in defending champion Djokovic. But it has developed a much more harmonious relationship with the greatest player of all time and two of the WTA’s brightest young stars, not to mention its leading grande dame. Without the top two men and top two malcontents, perhaps those who survived can focus more closely on the matches in the Magic Box, which in fact have produced some marvelous sorcery in both draws during the course of the week.
Azarenka vs. Radwanska: On the eve of its sixth edition in 2012, this mini-rivalry has shifted dramatically over just a few months. After a victory over Azarenka late in 2011, Radwanska had accumulated a 3-5 record against her fellow Eastern European—no cause for celebration, but also no cause for concern. Not even halfway into the next year, that record has ballooned to a woeful 3-10 and generated all five of the Pole’s losses in an otherwise magnificent campaign. Elevating the concerns of her fans is the increasingly lopsided character of these encounters, perhaps influenced by the animosity that has simmered since February between these prickly personalities. In fat, Azarenka and Radwanska split their first four sets of the year before the former swept the last eight while losing more than two games in only two of the eight. The shift from hard courts to the indoor clay of Stuttgart changed nothing of substance in a rivalry that has traced the world #1’s evolution into a more mature, composed competitor. Despite all of her craft and agility, Radwanska has exposed not a single hole in Azarenka’s armor upon which she can capitalize with any consistency.
All the same, the world #3 deserves great credit for continuing to earn opportunities to break through against her nemesis. Whenever the world #1 withdrew or stumbled before she reached her, Radwanska showed no mercy to any other opponent as she collected titles in Dubai and Miami. Perhaps the unfamiliar sight of the blue clay will inspire her with fresh hope in the quest to prove that she belongs on the same court with her nemesis. With each rout that lands upon her in rapid succession, the psychological burden will weigh ever more heavily. The Pole has struggled sometimes to sustain positivity against her most noted rivals, so she must aim for a promising start from which she can build her self-belief. Although Azarenka did not impress on serve early in her quarterfinal against Li Na, she regrouped courageously to finish off an opponent who often has proved a thorn in her side. If the world #1 remains a thorn in Radwanska’s side, viewers may feel nostalgic for the recent age of parity / anarchy in the WTA. Maddening at times, its unpredictability at least offered more drama and suspense than the rivalry in name only that has developed between two of the top three women.
Hradecka vs. Serena: When the draw appeared, many expected that Serena might face a hard-serving Czech in the semifinals, but few expected that she would play this particular hard-serving Czech. Another member of a nation suddenly rich in tennis talent, Hradecka has cracked a staggering 47 aces through her first four matches, culminating with a 19-ace barrage in just two sets against a befuddled Stosur. For her part, Serena’s lower total of 36 aces represents only part of her excellence in service games, of which she has lost only two in the eight sets that she has won. Outside an inexplicably dreadful first set against Wozniacki, the greatest player of her generation has looked the best player on the blue clay so far. Whenever the pressure has mounted, both Serena and Hradecka have found first serves that allow them to finish the points efficiently. Their ability to produce hold after hold should result in a match atypical for the WTA—and for a clay tournament.
Winning three straight tiebreaks in her last three sets, Hradecka displayed impressive poise in finishing off the much more heralded Kvitova and Stosur, the latter in a match that hinged on a tiny handful of points. More experienced than many qualifiers, she has accumulated over 350 victories in her singles career at age 26, so she should not crumble against Serena as most novices would. In their only meeting, at Cincinnati last summer, she extended the American into a second-set tiebreak and arguably outplayed her for much of that span. That competitive performance should cause her confidence to soar further and could result in a semifinal more intriguing than the 97-slot gap in their rankings would suggest. An improbable 11-0 on clay this year, however, Serena will not lack for the confidence that makes her such a fearsome foe for virtually anyone. Prepared and motivated, she should fancy her chances of reaching a marquee final against one of the season’s rising stars, a storyline that both tournament and the WTA would welcome.
Tipsarevic vs. Federer: Following in Verdasco’s footsteps by toppling one of the top two men, the second-ranked Serb will hope not to follow in the Spaniard’s footsteps out of the tournament a day later. Much less tense than the epic that extinguished Nadal’s title ambitions was the straight-sets quarterfinal that terminated Djokovic’s sojourn in Madrid. Saving all seven break points on his serve, including three in the final game, Tipsarevic felt pressure only when he narrowly quelled his compatriot’s last stand after squandering his first three match points. Throughout the week, his generally modest serve has succumbed only twice in eight sets, just once more than has Federer’s far more formidable delivery. If he can ward off an emotional hangover from the upset, for which few would blame him, Tipsarevic knows that his sheer grittiness has troubled the Swiss master on a blue court before—namely at the 2008 Australian Open. There, he extended a clearly superior opponent 18 games into a final set, basking in his moment of glory.
The most recent arrival in the top eight, the second-ranked Serb surely never dreamed that he could rise so high. This performance in Madrid ranks among the strongest results of his career to date, so he may not approach his attempt to improve on it with the keenest appetite. On the other hand, Federer now must view Madrid as his tournament to lose with none of his two leading rivals or even Murray remaining in the draw. Serving and volleying to great effect in his opener, he has lost none of his signature deftness on a surface that showcases his strengths more than any clay court where he has played before. On more significant occasions in the past, though, Federer has wavered briefly sometimes when such a golden opportunity hovered within his grasp. But he showed no sign of slipping in his intensity in an ominously comprehensive victory over the overmatched Ferrer, which suggested that his form may continue to rise during the weekend. Outside placing his serve with variety and ingenuity, Tipsarevic can do little to settle the Swiss star. While he should strike his share of sparkling winners, Federer’s movement, instincts, and point construction skill should shrink the court and lure his opponent into reckless gambits.
Del Potro vs. Berdych: If opportunity knocks for Federer in the absence of Nadal, it knocks scarcely less assertively for either of two men who normally would have had little chance against Rafa on clay. The Estoril champion and a Monte Carlo semifinalist, respectively, these two men have stayed within themselves in recent weeks without straying from the fundamentals of their straightforward games. Both the Argentine and the Czech have dispatched their opponents with simple serve-forehand combinations, relishing the surface’s propensity to reward their overwhelming first strikes. Surrendering just five games in his last two matches, Berdych has spent barely three hours on court through three matches and thus should arrive in this semifinal fully rested. An additional match and more than twice as much court time behind him, Del Potro may have gained superior preparation by defeating Cilic and Dolgopolov rather than a rusty Monfils and an exhausted Verdasco. The US Open champion has won three of their previous four meetings, among them a routine encounter in this stadium. In consecutive years, each man lost five-set semifinals at Roland Garros that seemed to illustrate the growing effectiveness of their fast-court styles on all surfaces. Outside those performances, though, neither has shone consistently at the key clay tournaments.
Despite the obvious similarities in their approach to the game, the two semifinalists diverge in some key respects. Whereas Berdych possesses a slightly more explosive serve, the long-armed Del Potro can expect to return more effectively and perhaps even chip away at his opponent’s confidence by striking some outright winners. Although the Czech crafted some imposing two-handers against Verdasco, that stroke remains less steady than the Argentine’s two-hander. An awkward volleyer except in the most routine situations, Del Potro cannot carve angles at the net as capably as can Berdych, who has pounced on opportunities to move forward this week. But the sight of these towering behemoths contesting a semifinal in the Caja Magica epitomizes just how much the blue clay differs from the red. Whether one appreciates this difference or laments it depends largely on one’s personal perspective.