Eyes on the Prize: Sharapova, Serena, Murray, and Berdych on Thursday in Miami

Now the men’s favorite in Key Biscayne, Murray can’t take his eye off the ball.

As the Sony Open nears its conclusion, Thursday will determine the leading ladies in Saturday’s women’s final, while the men still have some quarterfinal business to settle.

Maria Sharapova vs. Jelena Jankovic:  Even on an afternoon when her serve chronically deserted, Sharapova found the will and the focus to fire past world No. 7 Sara Errani in two tortuous sets.  If fourteen double faults cannot blunt her confidence, not many opponents can either.  Jankovic has managed to chip away at Sharapova’s steeliness on a few previous occasions despite emerging triumphant only once in seven attempts.  In their only completed meeting since 2008, when both women occupied the top five, a temporarily resurgent Serb came within a tiebreak of upsetting the Russian in the Cincinnati final two years ago.  Not a single shot can Jankovic hit more impressively than Sharapova, so she relies on her superior movement and durability.  Years of overstuffed schedules have undermined those strengths, and the 22nd seed enters the semifinal as a heavy underdog in view both of ranking and of recent form, which fluctuated wildly throughout her three-set victory over Vinci.  Needing to recover from that rollercoaster within fifteen hours, Jankovic must hope for another erratic afternoon from Sharapova while refining her own consistency.

Marin Cilic vs. Andy Murray:  Recalling the Sharapova-Jankovic rivalry, Cilic has won only one of nine meetings with his higher-ranked opponent.  That lone victory came on a momentous stage, the 2009 US Open, but a wrist injury may have contributed to that upset.  On the other hand, Cilic came close to repeating the feat at the same tournament last year when he nearly built a two-set lead, only to see Murray snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and ultimately run away with the match.  Astonishingly, they never have met at an outdoor Masters 1000 tournament while colliding at each of the four majors.  Cilic’s dominant serve and first-strike combinations often play into the hands of Murray’s crisp returning, alert instincts, and cleverly threaded passing shots.  The Croat impressed in extending his tiebreak record this year to 8-1 when he ambushed Tsonga, but the highest-ranked man remaining has not lost a set here and has become the heavy favorite to claim the title.

Richard Gasquet vs. Tomas Berdych:  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or so it seems in the case of Berdych.  Thrust to the brink in each of his first two matches, he enjoyed a greatly needed respite in the third with a swift victory over Querrey in which he regained his rhythm.  Quite the opposite was the last outing of the Frenchman ranked four places below him, an epic that ended in a third-set tiebreak that showcased his enhanced resilience under pressure.  When this pair met at Indian Wells, Berdych earned a deceptively straightforward victory as his opponent converted just one of fourteen break points amid some dismal serving from both men.  Unlike the histories among the other three pairs, however, their history stands deadlocked at 4-4 with Gasquet holding a slight edge on outdoor hard courts.  If he can find Berdych’s backhand and extend the rallies, his more balanced groundstrokes and more flowing movement could compensate for his disadvantage in raw power on this slow Miami court.

Serena Williams vs. Agnieszka Radwanska:  A leg injury and a flurry of double faults raised question marks over the world No. 1’s health during an edgy, uneven victory over Li Na.  Good enough to (narrowly) avoid a second straight three-setters, Serena now sets her sights on the defending champion in Miami, who has survived a string of long matches herself.  Radwanska has played final sets in five of her last six matches, including consecutive comebacks from losing the first set here.  Clearly below her 2012 form for most of 2013, she must hope to start more auspiciously against Serena, an excellent front-runner.  But a disastrous start in the Wimbledon final did not stop Radwanska from clawing a path back into that encounter with the heavily favored American, the only occasion in their four meetings when she has won a set from her.  In each of the other three, she has won four or fewer games, so this matchup may prove less compelling than their top-four rankings would suggest.  Serena has not won a title since Brisbane in the first week of the season, and the hunger for something more prestigious surely gnaws at her, as does a determination to atone for last year’s embarrassing result here.  If her body does not betray her, nor does her focus, she should rout Radwanska again.  If either falters, the consistency and unpredictable all-court artistry of the Pole could keep her off balance and the outcome in doubt.