September 9, 2010

And Then There Were Four...

Well at least one of my semifinal predictions came true.

At close-of-business Wednesday four ladies -- top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, defending champ Kim Clijsters, two-time winner Venus Williams, and Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva -- remain standing in their hopes to bring home the last Major title of the year. They've each battled heat, wind and some tough opponents to make it this far, and it sure looks like no one will easily give up her spot in the finals.

Last year's runner-up in New York has continued to surprise me all year. Even after taking a dangerous tumble in Charleston back in April, the twenty-year-old Dane has barely taken any time to rest. She played almost every tournament leading up to Paris and fought off even my criticisms to make the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. Then after Wimbledon she literally hit the pavement, winning three hardcourt titles at four events before coming to the U.S. Open atop the draw.

If you thought this was the time she'd let up, youd be mistaken. Wozniacki dropped only three games in her first week and was broken just twice in her first four matches. Her domination of 2006 champion Maria Sharapovaa on Monday proved that she could not only thrive as a counter-puncher, but could be aggressive when she needed to be. Last night against Dominika Cibulkova she battled the elements by keeping play clean and tight, ultimately earning a late break to win in straight sets.

For her efforts, Caroline has a rematch with Vera Zvonareva -- the woman, incidentally, who benefitted from that retirement at the Family Circle Cup. Like her opponent, the Russian has been nearly flawless in her first five matches, never dropping a set and rolling surprisingly easily through her fourth round against feisty Andrea Petkovic. She hasn't faced quite as tough a draw as Wozniacki, though, but is riding a wave of Grand Slam success, having played her first Major championship match in July.

Having just turned twenty-six, Vera is one of the veterans on Tour, but she seems to be finding her stride now. After her win over Kaia Kanepi Wednesday she said, "I'm still improving, you know. I've been playing for a while, but I'm still out there and still working hard." And it looks like her dedication is paying off. Having already played a hardcourt final in Montreal -- she lost the second match in a rain-induced double-header to Wozniacki about two weeks ago -- she could put up quite a fight to make her second in a row.

In the other half of the draw are two women who are far more experienced on the big stage. Kim Clijsters has now won nineteen consecutive matches in Flushing Meadows, albeit interrupted by a three-year absense from these grounds, and has played another four Major finals. The Cincinnati titleist is the only one of the four left who has lost a set during the fortnight, though it was to a tough competitor in Samantha Stosur. She's actually had the toughest draw of the semifinalists, too, barreling past resurging, former #1 Ana Ivanovic and staying tough against twenty-seventh seed Petra Kvitova.

Kim's been spotty at times this tournament, though. She found herself in a two-break deficit after bagelling Greta Arn to open her first round, and she lost serve seven times to Stosur in the quarters. But she does seem to find her best game when she needs too -- she doesn't lead the field in many stats, but has been able to attack her opponents' second serves, netting herself thirty-two break point conversions.

That could be somewhat intimidating to Venus Williams, who she'll face in the semis. The winner of the trophy twice at the turn of the century has dropped serve ten times this tournament. Then again, she has fired off more aces than any other woman -- twenty-six -- and the fastest bomb of the event at 127 miles per hour. With stats like that it's easy to silence those of us who worried a knee injury that kept her off court since Wimbledon would hamper her in New York.

So far Venus faced the toughest battle in the quarters against French Open winner Francesca Schiavone, but an even bigger test is coming up. Kim dismissed her in the fourth round last year, trading bagel sets before ultimately advancing 6-4 in the third. The Belgian followed up that win by drubbing Williams in the Miami finals, 6-2, 6-1 to win her second title of the year. About facing her nemesis -- a woman with whom she has a six-and-six career record -- Venus said, "I'm sure we'll have another really good matchup. I'd like to kind of flip the way it turns out."

All four ladies have been here before, and they've all had different results. Whatever happens on Friday we can be assured that one woman will play in her second Slam final and another will try to win her third U.S. Open crown. Clearly you have to favor the veterans, but with the draws stacked the way they are, you really can't be sure. And as I mentioned in my preview, we really might be due for a first-time winner.

After all, if it's going to happen anywhere, why not New York?

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