Sizing up the semifinals: Three heavyweights and a Swiss guy

Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters
By Matthew Zemek, April 18th, 2009

As the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters heads toward a pair of Saturday semifinals, it’s just as the oddsmakers predicted heading into the tournament: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray join a Swiss tennis player in the final four.

Oh, wait: Stanislas Wawrinka, not Roger Federer, is the man representing Switzerland as the year’s first clay Masters 1000 event winds toward its conclusion. Nevertheless, attractive tennis should be in the offing when Sunday’s championship matchup is decided.

Because of Thursday’s driving rain, top seed and four-time defending Monte Carlo champion Rafael Nadal had to play two matches on Friday in order to attain a “semi-sweet” accomplishment. That’s exactly what Rafa did, as the world No. 1 spent the late morning hours crushing Nicolas Lapentti, 6-3, 6-0, before polishing off wild card veteran Ivan Ljubicic in the early evening, 3 and 3.

If Nadal was concerned about rust after his sluggish Wednesday win over Juan Ignacio Chela, any worries were dispelled in a pair of convincing Friday thumpings. Nadal’s spiritual home resides on the crushed red brick of Europe, so after playing four low-drama sets in Monaco, Rafa should be primed for a big weekend and a fifth consecutive Monte Carlo crown.

While Nadal is the overwhelming favorite for this and any other claycourt tournament he enters, it’s fair to acknowledge that Andy Murray could put up a good fight in Saturday’s especially sexy semi. Murray played only three sets on Friday, as opposed to Nadal’s four, but the 21-year-old won two matches just the same. Early in the day, Murray won the second set of a suspended match against Fabio Fognini to polish off the Italian qualifier, 7-6 (11), 6-4. Just hours later,  Murray won another 7-6, 6-4 match, this one against eighth-seeded Nikolay Davydenko, who returned to the tour after an injury that sidelined the Russian for the past five months.

Murray will be a formidable foe for Nadal because the world No. 4 knocked off Rafa at the U.S. Open last summer, and fought well against the Spaniard in last month’s Indian Wells final, despite a deceptively lopsided scoreline of 2 and 1. It’s probably asking too much for Murray to take down Nadal on clay, but in the same breath, there’s no question that the fourth-seeded Scot has the ability and the savvy to make Nadal earn everything he gets. Murray is the single biggest object of curiosity (even more than Federer) during the men’s portion of the spring clay season, so an early encounter with Nadal more than a month before the French Open will command the attention of the global tennis community.

On the bottom half of the Monte Carlo bracket, form held in only one of two sections. Novak Djokovic, fresh off an encouraging runner-up showing at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, is holding up his end of the bargain by making the Monte Carlo semis for the second straight year. Novak Djokovic fought into the semifinals by turning aside seventh-seeded Fernando Verdasco, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

It’s undeniably true that Djokovic’s fitness and mental toughness have slightly but noticeably slipped over the past several months, but the talented Serb seems to be regaining not only confidence, but hunger, at this point of the tennis season. Even if he doesn’t win in Monte Carlo, Djokovic would love to get a crack at either Nadal or Murray in a Sunday showdown, gaining some claycourt match experience before making the trek to Roland Garros for the year’s second major.

If Djokovic is to punch a ticket for Sunday’s final, he’ll have to beat a Swiss… but not the man he dispatched in the Miami semifinals two weeks ago. On April 3, Djokovic felled Federer in Florida, but with the ATP Tour now contesting matches on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the 21-year-old from Belgrade will have to take down Wawrinka. The other half of Switzerland’s Olympic gold medal doubles team advanced to the final four by stopping Germany’s Andreas Beck, 6-2, 6-4.

Wawrinka is playing very efficient and confident tennis, while possessing a forceful backhand that can do a lot of damage when properly calibrated. This encounter does not figure to be a cakewalk for the third-seeded Djokovic, who instructively needed three sets to turn back Wawrinka in last year’s Rome Masters final. Wawrinka knows he can compete on relatively even terms with Djokovic if he brings a solid effort to the stadium; Djokovic, in turn, is quite aware that he can’t try to coast in a misguided attempt to conserve energy before a heavily-hyped matchup with Nadal or Murray.

Everyone’s expecting Nadal to win, while few are expecting Djokovic to lose. Nevertheless, the two Saturday semis at the Monte Carlo Masters should provide compelling action and spirited competition.


WTA Tour Update - Family Circle Cup in Charleston, South Carolina

When the women’s tennis tour competes on clay in the United States, the color of the slow stuff is green, and not red. The slightly faster clay surface rewards baseline power, so if hardcourt performers thrive on American clay, no one should be too surprised.

It came as a big shock, then, that Venus Williams was shown the door in the round of 16. On Thursday, the older Williams sister fell to 16th-seeded Sabine Lisicki, 6-4, 7-6 (5). While that result sent some shock waves through the world of women’s tennis, a lot of WTA watchers had to figure that Lisicki wouldn’t be able to back up that result with more high-quality tennis.

They-and other bearers of well-reasoned conventional wisdom-were wrong.

Lisicki powered her way into the semifinals by winning her quarterfinal match just a day after vanquishing Venus. Lisicki, ranked 63rd in the world, thrashed Elena Vesnina, 6-4, 6-0, to move on to the final four. Lisicki’s Saturday opponent will be sixth-seeded Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli, who pasted Melinda Czink by a 6-4, 6-1 count.

The other semifinal matchup will pit top-seeded Elena Dementieva against No. 5 Caroline Wozniacki. Dementieva advanced into the semis when her opponent, seventh-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, retired early in the second set. Wozniacki cruised through her quarterfinal match, walloping Virginie Razzano, 6-2, 6-0.


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