Rafael Nadal - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Thirteen

With the sport settled into its midsummer vacation, albeit not a vacation for players like Isner and Roberta Vinci, we return from our own brief respite to remember the most memorable matches of the first half.  In three majors and five Masters 1000 tournaments, the top men provided plenty of stiff competition for a list that we reduced to five (or rather six).

5) Nadal d. Del Potro (Wimbledon):  Arriving much earlier in the fortnight than either player would have preferred, this bruising four-hour battle illustrated Del Potro’s resurgence as well as Nadal’s self-belief against all adversaries but one.  Tension seethed throughout the first three sets as the momentum shifted throughout prolonged service games and rallies that pitted the Argentine’s massive forehand against the top seed’s cat-like court coverage.  Barely denied the upset, the former US Open champion left little doubt that he can recapture his glory once he accumulates greater confidence from playing more matches.   A match waged with the mind as much as the racket, however, this encounter deservedly fell to the combatant with the keener survival instinct and appetite for competition.

4) Djokovic d. Nadal (Wimbledon) / Nadal d. Federer (Roland Garros):  Although not the finest hours of these classic rivalries, the last two Slam finals underscored the new hierarchy at the top.  Following scripts with too little suspense to become classics, they nevertheless featured strings of scintillating exchanges from all corners of the court.  From Federer’s choreographed elegance to Nadal’s grinding physicality to Djokovic’s swaggering fusion of offense and defense, the top three showcased their distinctive strengths as well as their distinctive personalities, opening windows onto the past, present, and perhaps future of the sport.  Apparent from both matches was the psychological edge owned by Nadal over Federer and by Djokovic over Nadal, magnified by the weight of the moment.  As the second half approaches, one wonders whether the greater challenge lies in the Serb’s attempt to maintain his supremacy or in the efforts of the others to overtake him.

3) Djokovic d. Murray (Rome):  No less notable than the brilliance of the victor was the courage displayed by the vanquished in this semifinal epic.  On his least comfortable surface, Murray rebounded from an abysmal first set to reverse the match’s trajectory with a degree of aggression unfamiliar to his fans.  The Scot nearly succeeded where the king of clay failed, edging within two points of victory on multiple occasions as he served for the match.  That predicament inspired Djokovic to display his own valor and demonstrate how he had remained undefeated for so long, growing bolder and more focused as danger loomed.  In the climactic tiebreak, the Serb struck each shot with a fearlessness rarely witnessed during his 2009-10 swoon, a fearlessness that proclaimed not just his desire to win but his conviction that he would.  For Murray, meanwhile, this loss augured more brightly for the future than many of his wins.

2) Federer d. Djokovic (Roland Garros):  Robbed by Djokovic in a New York semifinal and dominated by Djokovic in a Melbourne semifinal, Federer clearly entered their Paris semifinal determined to avenge those wrongs of majors past.  Standing within a victory of the #1 ranking, the still undefeated Serb seemed almost certain to contest a third straight Slam final, for few could imagine the fading Swiss legend outlasting him over the course of five sets.  But Federer halted the march of time during a performance that awakened memories of the steely superstar who played his crispest tennis when he most needed to win a rally, returned most convincingly when he most needed to break serve, and fired an ace when he finally arrived at match point.  Tsonga would prove a month later that this match marked only an ephemeral revival, but Federer salvaged his legitimacy as a contender for some time to come with his most notable triumph since winning the 2010 Australian Open.

1) Djokovic d. Nadal (Miami):  Among the most dazzling feats in tennis is the Indian Wells-Miami double, which demands not a fortnight but a month of sustained dominance.  After Djokovic sagged through the first several games of his final against the world #1, observers sensed that this prize would elude a weary Serb burdened by the pressure of his perfect season.  Just as he had in Indian Wells, however, Djokovic willed himself to find the self-belief necessary to turn the tide early in the second set.  Not vanishing in the third set as he did in the desert, Nadal battled the Serb relentlessly through a riveting final set that featured no breaks but several suspenseful service games.  When Rafa stood two points from victory in the twelfth game, observers again sensed that the sands had at last trickled out of Novak’s hourglass.  Then, Djokovic won nine of the next eleven points as his frequently questioned fitness prevailed on physical and mental levels over an opponent previously unsurpassed in either department.  Not scorched by the glaring Miami sun or the intensity of a title-deciding tiebreak, the future #1 showcased the courageous spirit that has developed into the central storyline of 2011.

What goes up must come down.  Behold the three most unforgettably forgettable fizzles of the first half.

3) Soderling d. Verdasco (Rome):  In 2009, both players looked on the verge of becoming genuine contenders at majors after Verdasco reached the Australian Open semifinals and Soderling the Roland Garros final.  This ghastly carnival of errors illustrated several reasons why both have receded to the edges of the conversation in 2011.  Foremost among those reasons was Verdasco’s serve, which cost him the match with double faults that threw the rest of his volatile game and mind into disarray.  But the Spaniard held triple match point in the second set, which he could not have reached without considerable assistance from an equally impatient and equally profligate Swede, whose scintillating start to the season has evaporated amidst illnesses, injuries, and general petulance.

2) Djokovic d. Murray (Australian Open):  Expected to decide the leading pretender to the Nadal-Federer twin throne, the year’s first Slam final unfolded with no more suspense than a coronation.  Serenely surveying the spectacle from Djokovic’s box, Ivanovic trended on Twitter as the far less stunning events below her sputtered and wheezed towards their inevitable conclusion.  If Murray had joined her there, he might have discomfited Novak more than he did with a thoroughly feckless performance that made Britons wonder why they rose early to watch.  One could understand how farcical gaffes on even his steadiest shots cost the Scot his confidence and plunged him into a second straight spring swoon on the North American hard courts.

1) Nadal d. Federer (Miami):  Eager to witness the first North American edition of The Greatest Rivalry in Sports in six years, the Key Biscayne audience saw no encore of the thrilling 2005 final.  Instead, a listless Federer failed to summon tennis remotely resembling his magnificent best and thus did not force Nadal to unleash his own greatness.  When Federer earned a break point in the first game of the second set, spectators waited breathlessly for the plot twist that would turn this match from a soggy dishcloth into a regal tapestry.  But a dishcloth it remained, arguably the least compelling meeting between the two legends since the earliest stages of their rivalry.  Fortunately, Madrid and Roland Garros enabled them to replace this moment with brighter memories.


We return in a few days with the companion piece for the women’s first half.