Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

Towering above the competition at the ATP 500 tournament in Dubai, Federer and Djokovic look destined to reprise their Australian Open semifinal collision.  Without Nadal, Soderling, or Murray to derail them, can anyone prevent a marquee final next Sunday?  We present a different sort of draw preview that discusses their potential obstacles individually.

Llodra (first round vs. Djokovic):  At his home Masters 1000 event last fall, the serve-and-volleying Frenchman halted the Serb’s title defense.  Can he perform the same feat as Djokovic defends another title?  Perhaps demoralized by his loss in the Davis Cup final, Llodra has not extended his impressive fall into 2011, and the wind-stroked desert differs dramatically from the laboratory-like conditions at the Paris Indoors.  On the other hand, Djokovic may start rusty and complacent in his first match since the Melbourne final.

Gulbis (quarterfinal vs. Federer):  After reaching the semifinal in Sydney, the world #24 has lost three straight matches, including a straight-sets loss to Benjamin Becker at the Australian Open.  During last year’s clay season, he appeared to have emerged from a protracted slump with a victory over Federer and near-victory over Nadal, but he reverted to his former self when he returned from a Roland Garros leg injury.  Seemingly destined to squander his potential, Gulbis won a set from Federer in Doha’s desert conditions last year and has the groundstroke firepower with which Del Potro, Soderling, and Berdych have unsettled the Swiss.  Nevertheless, he may not even reach their projected quarterfinal, since the dangerous Stakhovsky looms in the second round.

Baghdatis (quarterfinal vs. Djokovic):  Another player who flatters to deceive, the engaging Cypriot has reached a pair of quarterfinals this season after streamlining his physique during the winter.  Before retiring from the Australian Open for the second straight year, he ousted Del Potro and held the upper hand against Melzer until suffering an injury.  Back in the top 20, Baghdatis defeated both Federer and Nadal at hard-court Masters 1000 events last season, where he demonstrated an unexpected degree of focus by prevailing in a pair of tense three-setters.  He has won at least one set from the Serb in each of their non-clay meetings, including a suspenseful semifinal at this tournament last year.  Then struggling for confidence after his notorious retirement in Melbourne, Djokovic overcame a one-set deficit with smarter shot selection and superior serving.  Not lacking for confidence this year, the two-time defending champion should extend his undefeated record against Baghdatis.

Youzhny (semifinal vs. Federer):  A two-time finalist at this Persian Gulf oasis, the 2010 US Open semifinalist owns one of the ATP’s finer one-handed backhands.  Able to project as much offense with that shot  as can Federer, Youzhny atoned for a disappointing exit in Melbourne with creditable performances in Rotterdam and Marseille.  At the latter event, his versatile, understated game blunted Tsonga’s unbridled power before the Russian wasted a match point in a semifinal loss to Cilic.  Recent history aside, his record against Federer stands at an inauspicious 0-10, and the Swiss has won their last 16 sets in a streak dating back to Halle in 2003.  Yet other long-time victims of Federer, such as Davydenko and Soderling, ultimately broke through after years of futility, so one should not discount a player with inspiring memories of his previous trips to the desert.  Last year, Youzhny came within a few key points of the Dubai title after outplaying Djokovic for a set and a half.

Simon (semifinal vs. Federer):  The architect of two accidents against the Swiss grandmaster, Simon nearly added to his disconcerting success in the second round of the Australian Open.  Few players have erased a two-set deficit against the 16-time major champion, but the Frenchman displayed his characteristic grit by grinding down Federer one rally at a time.  Derailed by injuries early last season, Simon reaffirmed his relevance with a title in Sydney and a victory over the vanishing Davydenko in Rotterdam.  Although he fell to Baghdatis in his Dubai opener last year, he reached the semifinal at this event’s 2009 edition and dragged eventual champion Djokovic deep into a sweat-soaked third set.  Before he can face Federer, however, Simon must solve the conundrum posed by first-round opponent Youzhny, who has won all seven of their previous encounters.

Ljubicic (semifinal vs. Federer):  With Indian Wells just over the horizon, can the ATP’s smoothest pate rekindle the magic of that spring surge?  Deep in the autumn of his career, Ljubicic became Tursunov’s first notable victim in Marseille but conquered Baghdatis in a third-set tiebreak a week earlier.  Similar to Youzhny, he has lost ten consecutive meetings to Federer and has not won a set from him since 2005.  Although the Swiss often has played an unfocused, inconsistent brand of tennis in their recent meetings, that level has proved sufficient to dispatch the Croat in straight sets.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Berdych (semifinal vs. Djokovic):  Probably the most plausible ambush artist in the draw, the world #7 has begun to recover from his second-half swoon to build upon his summer accomplishments.  The occasional odd losses can still recur, though, as illustrated by a lopsided defeat against Wawrinka in the Chennai semifinal.  Impressively sturdy in the first week of the Australian Open, Berdych dropped just a single set through four rounds before colliding with Djokovic, who dismantled him with disdainful ease.  (The second-set tiebreak seemed more the consequence of the Serb’s boredom than the Czech’s brilliance.)  A contrasting narrative unfolded three majors ago at Wimbledon, where the underdog upset the favorite almost as authoritatively.  Perhaps ruffled by the odd desert conditions, though, he has won just one match in each of his four Dubai appearances.

Troicki (semifinal vs. Djokovic):  As we explored in an earlier article, the second Serb has challenged his compatriot on occasions such as their second-round encounter here last year.  A few months later at the US Open, he extended the eventual runner-up to five sets and thus should believe that he can break through against Djokovic as he rises in the rankings.  The world #18 fell twice to opening-round opponent Kohlschreiber in 2010 and fell meekly to potential quarterfinal opponent Berdych in Miami.  Yet he enjoyed a pair of sturdy weeks in Sydney and Rotterdam, where he bookended a retirement in Australian with a final and a semifinal.  The Serb has lost only to the eventual champion in all four tournaments that he has played in 2011, and three of his four losses have come against top-five foes.

Davydenko (semifinal vs. Djokovic):  Languishing in the lower echelon of the top 50, the 29-year-old Russian has struggled to string together consecutive matches since injuring his wrist at Indian Wells.  Although he has threated the Serb repeatedly in the past, Davydenko has lost four consecutive matches since reaching the final in Doha with a victory over an ailing Nadal.  He did defeat potential second-round opponent Berdych last fall, but the confidence that has played a vital role in his success must surely lie at a low ebb.

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We return shortly to untangle some of the intriguing storylines that developed last week and then detour to Doha for the WTA Premier tournament.

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