Wednesday July 4th, 2012

Serena Williams beat Victoria Azarenka in their last meeting, the finals of the Madrid Open. (Getty Images)

WIMBLEDON, England -- Though soon-to-be-former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova crashed out of Wimbledon earlier than expected, the women's semifinals still boasts four top 10 players. Serena Williams-Victoria Azarenka is a matchup of Grand Slam Champs while Agniezska Radwanska and Angelique Kerber are on fire in 2012.

Serena Williams vs. Victoria Azarenka: Azarenka has already taken the No. 1 ranking in style this year, beating Maria Sharapova in the final of the Australian Open to clinch the ranking and her maiden Slam. A win here over Serena would do the same. She has the chance to reclaim the top ranking outright with a win in the semis and, given her record against both her potential finalists, make her a front-runner for her second major title of the year. But that would mean going through Serena Williams, a woman she's only beaten once in eight tries including a 6-1, 6-3 smackdown a little over a month ago in the final of Madrid. That was a clay court tournament but it's a notable result here because it was played on fast blue clay at altitude. The ball was flying there, like it will be on the Wimbledon grass.

As is the case almost 100 percent of the time Serena takes the court, the match is entirely on her racket. If she plays even at 80 percent of how she played against Petra Kvitova in their high-quality quarterfinal, Azarenka will be in trouble. Against Kvitova, Serena served 13 aces, zero double faults and hit 27 winners to 10 unforced errors in two sets. That's as clean a line as she's had all tournament. The concern about Serena through much of this tournament surrounded her mental state after the French Open, and through her first four matches she played like a woman wracked by fear and haunted by failure. That all changed in her quarterfinal. There was no desperation about Serena, no indecision or lack of focus. She was cool determination personified and that was evident in her match-point reaction. There was no leaping celebration this time like after she survived Zheng Jie and Yaroslava Shvedova in her two previous matches. There was simply a quiet fistpump to her box and a smug smile as she strolled to the net. In other words, it was the Serena of old, the one we've been spoiled with, and that's the one Azarenka will need to contend with on Thursday.

Azarenka's best chance -- apart from Serena coming out flat, which is always a possibility -- is to use her legs to make Serena hit that extra ball, and to take the ball flat up the line at every opportunity to earn a short ball that she can finish off. Azarenka's return is one of the best in the game and she'll need it more than ever. The ball has to get deep on Serena and it has to be flat. But the crux of this matchup is all about Azarenka's serve vs. Serena's return. The Belarusian isn't going to match Serena in power and aces, but she can open up the court if she keeps Serena guessing and places the ball well.

But these are all ifs. IF Serena serves well, moves well, and returns well -- as we saw her do against Kvitova -- this could be a very short day. IF Serena doesn't, if she keeps Azarenka in the match with errors and returns into the net, we're in for a long one.

Prediction: Serena in straight sets.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Angelique Kerber: This one will be a tussle between two of the top players in 2012 who, interestingly, haven't faced each other this year. Both women are effectively counterpunchers, though they go about it in entirely different ways. Kerber is the modern-day version, absorbing power and pace and redirecting balls back with even more pace. If there's any such thing as a ball-bashing counterpuncher, Kerber might be it.

Radwanska on the other hand is a purist's counterpuncher. Her variety and intelligent shot-making has led tennis writers to spill thousands upon thousands of words in praise and her style appears to be the most effective on grass, where she knows how to use the surface to both absorb and build pace. You'd think a surface like clay would be best suited to her finesse, but a closer look reveals why grass is the perfect for her. It amplifies her speed of shot and she can use her slice and drop shots with even great effectiveness.

Put these two together and they have produced three straight three-set epics, dating back to 2010. Kerber stunned Radwanska at last year's U.S. Open, handing her a shock loss in the second round and then backed that up to make her first Slam semifinal. Radwanska got revenge a few weeks later in Tokyo, on her way to the title. But on this surface, I give the edge to Radwanska. Her point construction is going to keep the German off-balance and yank her all around the court. If Kerber is going to have any upper hand it will be in returning Radwanska's serve, which tops out at about 105 mph. Prediction: Radwanska in three sets.

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