Rafael Nadal - 2011 French Open - Day Eleven

Nadal vs. Murray:  Not a round too soon, the five-time Roland Garros champion muscled aside the pallid impersonation of himself that had crept more than charged through the first four rounds.  In a resounding victory over his previous Paris tormentor, Nadal seized the impetus necessary to propel himself through two more matches against top-5 opponents.  Equally compelling, though, was the chronicle of Murray’s recovery from an excruciating ankle injury in the second set of his third-round match.  Two sets and two more matches behind him, the Scot somehow has survived to reach the Roland Garros semifinals for the first time and will become the first player to meet the Spaniard at every major.  Defeating Nadal at both the US Open and the Australian Open, Murray never has conquered him in five meetings on clay or grass.  Nevertheless, he finally won a set from the world #1 on the latter’s favorite surface during a three-set, three-hour semifinal in Monte Carlo, even while struggling with an elbow injury.  Just as the injury to that joint hampered his ball-striking capacity, the injury to this joint will undermine his mobility against the sport’s smoothest mover on the terre battue.

Compensating for the injury with an uncharacteristic offensive assault, Murray has shown how he ultimately could win a major by complementing his counterpunching with penetrating blows from both groundstroke wings.  Even before he twisted his ankle, in fact, the world #4 had elevated his willingness to strike his forehand with more conviction both inside-in and inside-out.  The player who most threatened Djokovic’s streak this year, he not only withstood the Serb’s baseline assault but often turned the tables.  Less impressive is Murray’s serve, which deserted him in that Rome match and continues to leave him exposed to aggressive returns when he lacks a high first-serve percentage (as he usually does).  Yet Nadal also has struggled with his serve over the past few tournaments, especially when serving to consolidate a break.  Since both players rank among the finest returners in the ATP, meanwhile, one can expect multiple service breaks and deuce games.

Among the strategies that Murray has employed most successfully against Rafa on hard courts is driving his cross-court backhand deep into Nadal’s forehand and then moving forward to strike a two-hander down the line before the Spaniard recovers.  In contrast, Nadal has gained success against Murray by pounding his down-the-line forehand into Murray’s own forehand to draw a weakly looping reply.  If the wind plays a perceptible role, as it did in the women’s semifinals, the defending champion adapts much more confidently to the conditions than the Scot, rattled by gusts in their Indian Wells final last year.  All the same, a reinvigorated Rafa probably will not require the assistance of the weather to consolidate the momentum acquired by defeating Soderling.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates winning a point in his semifinal match against Roger Federer of Switzerland during day eleven of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 27, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Federer vs. Djokovic:  For the first time in their rivalry, which has featured only one fewer meeting than Nadal-Federer, the Swiss star enters as the underdog to a player who halted him in this round at the last two majors.  Capturing their last five sets at Slams, the Serb has conquered Federer three times this year while losing one total set.  Djokovic appears unburdened by a winning streak that has neared historic proportions as he attempts to become the first man in the Open era to reach the grass season undefeated.  Tested by Del Potro over two days in the third round, he cruised through a comfortable victory over Gasquet last Sunday—and has not played since, the beneficiary of Fognini’s withdrawal.  While that additional rest should have reinvigorated Djokovic physically, it may also have disrupted his rhythm and given him an unwelcome opportunity to contemplate the consequences of a title this weekend or of a victory here.  Producing uneven performances with  the #2 ranking at stake, the Serb will face a mental challenge as he seeks to become the first player other than Nadal or Federer to claim the top position since February 2004.

Fully alert to the implications of what he considers the only number that matters, the 2009 champion has stated his claim to the throne with understated eloquence, brushing aside an overmatched array of pretenders without conceding a set.  While Djokovic needed to elevate his game in the first week to survive Del Potro, Federer has experienced no real adversity in his first five matches, so he must raise his level sharply as well as suddenly.  When the same scenario occurred at the US Open last fall, he uncorked a performance unusually erratic even by his late-career standards, effectively dozing through the second and fourth sets.  Not yet has Federer encountered an opponent who not only can summon Djokovic’s power but can sustain it throughout a best-of-five encounter.  In their previous matches, the Serb hammered away at both of his groundstrokes until first the backhand and then the famed forehand crumbled.  Equipped with a revitalized serve, moreover, the world #2 lost only two service games in his first four matches here despite the slow surface.  If Djokovic rises to his potential, Federer thus has few options with which to challenge him from the baseline.  And he will struggle to reach the net with regularity unless he enjoys an outstanding serving day, for the Serb’s groundstrokes penetrate hardly less forcefully on clay than on hard courts.

In order to halt Djokovic’s remarkable run, Federer probably must benefit from a slightly fallible performance by his opponent in addition to demonstrating more guile and artistry than the power that he prefers.  Renowned for his stinging serve and fierce forehand, the 16-time major champion must accept that the two men who have surpassed him can muster superior weight behind their groundstrokes more frequently and can strike their targets with more consistent precision.  Cast in an unfamiliar role as an underdog, Federer still can shine if he can blunt Djokovic’s power with the variety than his younger rival still does not possess.  Late in his career, one of the world’s most glamorous athletes may need to win less glamorously than he previously has.  If he can recognize that fact, though, the last player to defeat in Djokovic in 2010 may become the first player to defeat him in 2011.