Novak Djokovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Nine

Tsonga vs. Djokovic:  Buoyed by his victory over Nadal at Queens Club, the Frenchman has accelerated through this fortnight with an effort more sustained than any of his performances since the 2008 Australian Open.  Triggering memories of Tsonga’s brilliance on that occasion was his unprecedented comeback from a two-set deficit against Federer, whom he limited to only one break point throughout their quarterfinal.  As he served for the match at 5-4 in the final set, many would have expected the underachieving, acrobatic twelfth seed to falter under the magnitude of the moment.  But Tsonga did not flinch, thundering through a love service game to arrange a clash with a top-three opponent whom he has dominated.  Since losing to Djokovic in the Australian Open final three years ago, the Frenchman has reversed the trajectory of their rivalry by winning five of their following six meetings, most notably a five-setter in Melbourne last year.  In that jaggedly uneven encounter, the Serb’s notorious physical fallibility proved decisive.  Although Djokovic has solved those issues with a superior fitness program, the disparity in their serving effectiveness at this Wimbledon could prove a crucial factor.  Whereas Tsonga constructed an almost impenetrable fortress behind a startlingly high first-serve percentage, the Serb often endured tenuous service games at untimely moments in his quarterfinal against Tomic.  As he did last year against Berdych, Djokovic slipped into counterproductive passivity too often and should count himself fortunate to have avoided a fifth set.

In theory, the world #2 should acquire additional motivation from the opportunity to wrest the #1 ranking from Nadal with a victory over an opponent outside the top 10.  But will the pressure of potentially earning the top ranking weigh upon him, which it seemingly did during his sporadically listless defeat to Federer at Roland Garros?  During his one-loss first half of 2011, he has not faltered when defusing some of the ATP’s most imposing serves with his sparkling return.  In contrast to Tsonga’s reliance on his forehand, Djokovic can project equal offense from both groundstrokes, a vital advantage on grass that has contributed to his three Wimbledon semifinal appearances.  This groundstroke symmetry may counterbalance Tsonga’s more traditional grass-court style, centered around relentless assaults upon the forecourt.  Most comfortable when he controls the outcome of rallies, the Frenchman can grow tentative when forced onto the defensive, so Djokovic should not spurn openings to assert his baseline offense.  Displaying far greater nerve than expected against Federer, Tsonga likely will not fade should he encounter early setbacks but instead compel the Serb to deliver his most complete performance of the tournament so far.  If Djokovic does ascend to the pinnacle of the ATP on Monday, he will not have seized his laurel crown undeservedly.

Rafael Nadal - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Nine

Nadal vs. Murray:  Thwarted by the Scot at both hard-court majors, the world #1 has won all nine sets that they have contested at Slams on clay and grass.  Injecting elevated aggression into his game when he meets Nadal, Murray has troubled the Spaniard on faster surfaces by driving his cross-court backhand into the lefty’s forehand corner and creating an opening for a backhand down the line.  The stroke that has bedeviled Federer, Rafa’s skidding wide serve in the ad court slides into the strike zone of the fourth seed’s penetrating backhand return.  These issues of point construction did not prevent Nadal from recapturing the momentum in their rivalry with a spine-tingling epic at the World Tour Finals last fall, however.  Still a much superior player on the points that matter most, the top seed maintained his calm in the pivotal second-set tiebreak of their Wimbledon semifinal last year.  After Murray failed to convert the set point that he held on his serve, the two-time champion never offered him a second hope.  The least impressive component of the Scot’s otherwise complete arsenal, his second serve poses such a vulnerable target that he often faces a painful dilemma between striking his first serve with maximum velocity and concealing his Achilles heel by maximizing his percentage.  Once rallies begin, though, Murray can engage in longer, more grueling baseline exchanges with Nadal than any other opponent except Djokovic.  Deceptively fit and keenly focused, he dragged through a series of exhausting service games this year in sets that often stretched over an hour.

Largely untested by Lopez, the home hope should have arrived in this third straight Slam semifinal with his confidence soaring in proportion to his ten-match winning streak.  Murray has proven too fragile in that department against elite opposition, though, as demonstrated in his losses to Djokovic and Nadal at the season’s two previous majors.  While the crowd will exert themselves to the utmost in raising his spirits, the fourth seed must shed the memories of last year’s defeat to the Spaniard and curb his tendency towards morose self-loathing.  Yet Murray knows that he has succeeded against Nadal when the latter has lacked peak physical condition, and a concerning foot injury two rounds ago causes one to question whether Rafa can summon the explosive movement that has won two Wimbledon titles.  Beset by nagging injuries for much of his career, the world #1 has demonstrated an occasionally disconcerting imperviousness to discomfort.  Instead, Nadal seemingly thrives upon adversity and embraces challenges with a determination proportional to their rigor, an attitude shared by few of his rivals and that has contributed to his recent dominance.  Still searching for that elusive first Slam, Murray certainly can equal the Spaniard in talent measured tangibly through serves, groundstrokes, and volleys.  In overcoming an ankle injury to reach the Roland Garros semifinals, he revealed traces of Nadalian fortitude as well.  From those traces spring hope that Centre Court will host a classic collision on Thursday, during which Murray dogs the favorite’s footsteps deep into the London twilight.