Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain congratulates Andy Murray of Great Britain after their match during the semifinals of the Rogers Cup at the Rexall Centre on August 14, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.

Hunting the most prestigious title of his career so far, Murray confronts an opponent against whom he has unleashed some of his most sparkling tennis.  The Scot has won four of his last five hard-court meetings with the Spaniard, dropping only a wind-addled encounter at Indian Wells last year.  Critically, Murray proved his ability to conquer Nadal on momentous stages with consecutive Slam victories over him at the 2008 US Open and 2010 Australian Open.  In the latter duel, he drained most of the drama from a marquee quarterfinal by serving brilliantly, pounding his cross-court backhand into the Spaniard’s vulnerable forehand corner, and relentlessly exploiting opportunities to move into the forecourt.  Just as impressive was the courage that he displayed in rallying from early deficits in each of the first two sets.  Forcing himself to leave his counterpunching comfort zone, Murray transformed himself into a fearless attacker.  Seen too rarely against other foes, that dimension of his game resurfaced in his comfortable semifinal victory over Nadal at the Rogers Cup this summer, which he controlled almost from the first ball to the last.  Once again, his ability to deliver first serves on crucial points played a pivotal role in snuffing out the Spaniard’s hopes.  After the match, his conquered adversary sounded justifiably frustrated in his apparent inability to crack the Murray code on hard courts.

In the Wimbledon semifinal this summer, however, Nadal avenged his Melbourne defeat with an equally commanding straight-sets victory over the home favorite.  Distant from the expectant eyes of his compatriots in Melbourne and Toronto, Murray faces their renewed scrutiny at a tournament that means more to him than to Nadal at this stage in his career, and where he thus will feel greater pressure.  Conceding just ten total games to Ferrer and Soderling, the Scot looked barely recognizable in a sullen, spiritless defeat to Federer; this lack of conviction portends ominously for his self-belief against another fabled foe in Nadal.  By contrast, the Spaniard has grown progressively more comfortable under the aquatic blue lights of the O2 Arena, although tremors of irritability have betrayed some lingering unease.  After narrowly escaping an opening loss to Roddick, Nadal accumulated momentum with triumphs over Djokovic and the pleasantly surprising Berdych.  During an epic first set, the Czech forced the world #1 to elevate his performance but never seriously threatened him, thus providing ideal preparation for the consecutive top-5 wins that he requires in order to capture a debut title here.  Perhaps boosted by his hard-court breakthrough at the US Open, Nadal sounded much more optimistic about his Saturday fate than he did after his Saturday setback at the Rogers Cup.  The Spaniard always becomes most dangerous when most confident, so he arrives in the semifinal as a slight favorite.  Despite the competitive willpower on both sides of the net, their last four matches all have ended in straight sets.  Therefore, this semifinal’s early stages could prove decisive in determining the balance of power between such evenly matched contenders.  The winner will advance to his first final at the year-end championships.

Just as delicately poised is the second semifinal between two familiar adversaries with five titles at the year-end championships between them.  Unlike the Nadal-Murray rivalry, the Federer-Djokovic rivalry regularly has featured suspense and momentum shifts as four of their last five meetings have entered final sets.  By far the most memorable among them, of course, was the Serb’s stirring comeback in the US Open semifinals after saving consecutive match points with spine-tingling shotmaking.  Unnoticed by casual fans, Federer since has regained the initiative with consecutive victories at Shanghai and his home tournament in Basel, which he has relinquished to Djokovic a year earlier.  Invigorated by a post-US Open hiatus, Federer has towered above the field in London by sweeping through a group that included two top-five players without dropping a set.  The four-time champion at this event has not defeated three top-five opponents in the same tournament since the Shanghai Masters Cup in 2007, and he failed miserably when he attempted to repeat that feat in Shanghai this fall.  But the ample rest between matches should aid Federer’s recovery, both physically and mentally.  Perceptibly determined to end the season with an emphatic statement, he needs this title perhaps more than on any of the other occasions when he won it.  While 2010 belongs to Nadal regardless of what happens over the weekend, Federer hasn’t left an impression (of a positive nature) upon any key event since the Australian Open, except for the Cincinnati title that virtually walked into his arms.  Amidst his longest drought without a Slam final since winning his first major in 2003, a crown at the most significant non-major of the year would substantially rekindle his confidence prior to his Melbourne defense.

After his second-half eruption from a stagnant state, Djokovic seeks to cement that breakthrough by providing a companion for his 2008 title.  Still relatively early in his career, Djokovic may feel less urgency than Federer, and his impetus has somewhat slowed since that outstanding US Open charge.  Perhaps somewhat fortunate to face Berdych before the Czech settled into the tournament, the Serb knows that a rare opportunity to win the Davis Cup final beckons in just a week.  Nevertheless, he hasn’t allowed his anticipation to dilute his focus thus far, for he halted his recent reverses against Roddick by thumping the error-prone American in his last round-robin match.  Another sip from the chalice of revenge might await Djokovic if Federer’s serve continues to simmer at a level below its boiling best, as it has for most of the week.  Had Soderling not unwisely stabbed a backhand volley into the open court, in fact, Roger’s record might not have remained so unblemished; the Swiss star cannot rely upon similar ineptitude from the Serb.  While both players welcome the low bounce on these courts, their relatively slow speed (by indoor standards) might favor the more consistent Djokovic, who should win the majority of their extended exchanges.  Just as the Serb needed their US Open meeting more than the Swiss, however, the Swiss now needs their London meeting more than the Serb.

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We return to discuss the last ATP match of the season.  Will the top two collide in the final of the Finals for the first time this millennium?  Or will one (or both) of their two primary challengers derail the ATP’s central rivalry once again?

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