Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Fish vs. Djokovic:  Having operated a flourishing bakery on Key Biscayne, the omnivorous Serb now plans to open a sushi bar at the season’s second Masters 1000 event.  Impeccable on serve throughout the tournament, Djokovic stands within two victories of the Indian Wells-Miami double after four victories that ranged between the routine and the resounding.  Nevertheless, occasional cracks in his stunning veneer emerged during his wins over Troicki and Kevin Anderson.  After struggling to close out the first set against his compatriot, Djokovic looked unsettled on serve in the opening set against the South African leviathan.  Although he escaped several deuces and break points, one wonders whether he has grown so accustomed to comfortably cruising past his victims that he will feel pressure when his opponent can stay somewhat within range.  Unlikely to break Fish with regularity, Djokovic will need to maintain his focus and positive energy more scrupulously than in his previous routs.  If the American can lure him into a tiebreak or a third set, the Serb may struggle to adapt mentally in such unfamiliar circumstances.  And such a narrative plausibly could unfold on Friday, for Fish twice has won sets from the world #2 at Indian Wells despite never capturing a match from him in five attempts.

Now his nation’s top-ranked man, the fourteenth seed aims to extend the momentum from upsets over Del Potro and Ferrer into a fourth Masters 1000 final.  All of those victories came on American soil, in part a product of vociferous crowd support that he will receive again.  At the US Open last year, however, no amount of applause could have saved Fish from a comprehensive defeat at the hands of the Serb.  Since Mardy’s game should thrive on the New York fast courts even more than in the Miami conditions, that precedent looks especially ominous for this semifinal.  As Blake attempted with disastrous results, Fish will need to impose himself from the first ball on both the serve and the return. Despite his improved fitness and consistency, he discovered at the US Open that a player of his level cannot survive in rallies with Djokovic from the baseline.  But opponents long have learned that the second seed’s superb reflexes enable him to blunt even the most formidable first strike.  Among the few memorable moments of the Anderson match came when the South African cracked a sizzling return.  Not content to simply retrieve it, the Serb thrust the full force of his compact physique behind his reply, which skidded breathlessly past his flat-footed opponent.  Similarly explosive counterpunching could unsettle an unwary Fish, while Djokovic’s lethal passing shots will stifle many of his serve-volley forays.  Unless his serve or his fans can manage to ruffle the world #2 psychologically, the American should succumb to his opponent’s superior technique, consistency, and versatility.

Nadal vs. Federer:  Outside the anomalistic year-end championships, they collide before the final for the first time since Roland Garros 2005.  Without a title at stake, how will each of them respond to confronting their archrival?  No matter what happens in this match, it will have virtually no impact upon either legend’s legacy, perhaps a comforting thought for both of them that will defuse the pressure and enable them to play their finest tennis.  Rarely threatened by his previous opponents, Federer has not quite attained a lofty height but instead maintained a modest altitude sufficient to win without undue exertion.   By contrast, Nadal dazzled against Nishikori and Dolgopolov by unleashing thunderous forehands from and to everywhere on the court.  Especially notable was a flat, down-the-line rocket that complemented the heavy spin on his cross-court rally ball and the sharp angles on his inside-in hook.  Curing his serving malaise from the Indian Wells final, the Spaniard found first serves on crucial points while varying his spins and placement.

Through the first set of his quarterfinal with Berdych, therefore, Nadal seemed clearly the hungrier, more motivated player of the two rivals.  Rarely has a top-10 contender looked so thoroughly outclassed as did the Czech during a first set in which Rafa withstood his initial assault before repeatedly outmaneuvering him from the baseline.  Abruptly, a strained nerve disconcerted the Spaniard early in the second set, transforming his effortless strokes into tense, labored jabs that mirrored the uncertainty in his expressive eyes and furrowed brow.  At triple break point in the first game of the third set, the marquee semifinal looked far from assured.  But then Nadal escaped from that trap with a sequence that included three consecutive aces and dominated on his serve thereafter, although he never regained the free-flowing form of the first set.  Hovering above his duel with Federer thus is the specter of a potential injury that could dilute his energy and concentration.

All the same, these slow hard courts in Miami featured one of the most memorable occasions when the GOAT and the Spanish bull locked horns, a five-setter that remains the only encounter in which one of them (Federer) rallied from a two-set deficit.  While the best-of-three format inherently limits a match’s narrative arc, this tournament offers a relatively neutral surface that can showcase Nadal’s feline movement along the baseline as often as Federer’s serve and forecourt assault.  In their last 11 meetings, the player who has won the first set has emerged victorious, a pattern that might well continue at a non-major where the incentive to launch a ferocious comeback simmers a little lower.  Not since Wimbledon 2008 have the two legends crafted a classic that one would frame for future generations, suggesting that their rivalry may have slid into the domain of nostalgia.  Colliding just twice in each of the last two years, Nadal and Federer nevertheless represent one of the great dramas not just in this sport but in all sports, a spectacle to savor as much for the past as for the present.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - 2011 Australian Open - "Rally For Relief"