Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Djokovic vs. Federer:  In what has become an annual autumnal ritual in New York, the Swiss legend collides with the Serb who aims to supplant on the final weekend of the season’s final major.  Frustrated by Federer in their first three meetings here, Djokovic earned his revenge last year with an epic five-set comeback that signaled his current surge to the peak of the ATP.  But Federer also deserved a dollop of credit for that result with the inconsistent tennis that too often has marred his late-career performances.  Twice already in 2011 have this duo met in Slam semifinals, a brilliant straight-sets triumph by Djokovic in Australia and an equally stunning display by Federer at Roland Garros that remains the only completed match lost by the Serb this year.  From these three recent meetings, one can surmise that the current #1’s superior physicality, movement, and consistency will outlast the former #1’s peerless attacking skills unless the latter delivers an effort reminiscent of his vintage self and Djokovic proves slightly mortal.

On both counts, however, Federer fans have reason to hope that the five-time US Open champion will reach his seventh final here.  After he waltzed past a pair of unheralded opponents in his first two rounds, the top seed has benefited from competition that has not forced him to rise near the level of which he is capable.  Neither an error-strewn Davydenko, an entertaining but unfocused Dolgopolov, nor a gallant but ultimately exhausted Tipsarevic could fully test Djokovic’s combination of stifling defense and lightning-like transitions to offense.  Surrendering more service games than one would expect from a tournament favorite, meanwhile, the Serb exuded body language less positive than he has for much of the year while showing less relentless intensity than during his title run in Australia.  The sudden upward spike in the quality of his opposition may catch Djokovic off guard in the semifinal, as may the early court time.  On the other hand, he has played more daytime matches than Federer, leaving him more acquainted with afternoon conditions here, and he has subjected his opponents to pressure on serve greater than any of the Swiss master’s previous victims.  In a sport tilted increasingly towards slower surfaces, longer rallies, sprawling athleticism, and tests of fitness (physical and mental), Djokovic possesses an advantage over Federer in all of those categories.  No element of their games demonstrates the clash in generations here more strikingly than the contrast between the Serb’s two-handed backhand, a weapon equal to his forehand, and the former champion’s elegant but less explosive one-handed flick.

Nevertheless, Federer has accelerated through his first five rounds while dropping only one set, like Djokovic.  Conceding fewer service games than any of the remaining semifinalists, he avenged his Wimbledon loss to Tsonga in an emphatic quarterfinal that showcased his artistry from all corners of the court, especially the forecourt.  In that arena, as well as his serve, Federer still holds the edge over the world #1, so he should capitalize upon those strengths at judicious moments.  The Swiss star can reflect upon his five-set loss in last year’s semifinal and realize that he controlled his own fate through the first four sets.  Only because of his inexplicably erratic lulls in the second and fourth sets did Djokovic even survive to force a decider.  Surely ravenous for another Slam title after a drought that has lasted nearly two years, Federer should retain his focus more effectively this time.  Moreover, this fastest surface of all majors bolsters his attacking, less high-percentage style more effectively than the Australian Open court where Djokovic smothered him in January.  In contrast to Djokovic’s sometimes tepid or lethargic body language, Federer has looked self-possessed and unruffled through five rounds, no easy feat at a major for a perfectionist of his type.  No matter the outcome, one struggles to imagine this match ending in straight sets or without several bursts of spectacular shot-making at vital moments.  Two years ago, Federer set up a match point against Djokovic with the between-the-legs stab that instantly became famous and ubiquitously emulated (with mixed results).  A year ago, Djokovic hammered a monstrous inside-in forehand off a sideline to save a match point deep in the fifth set.  This year, who can find that flash of greatness upon which these evenly matched contests turn?  While Federer attempts to recapture a glorious past, Djokovic seeks to march forward into an equally glorious future—that may soon become the present.  In this transitional era for men’s tennis, however, the power shift from one generation to the next seems not quite complete.

Rafael Nadal - 2011 US Open - Day 12

Murray vs. Nadal:  An inadvertent, unfortunate, but potentially central factor in the second semifinal, fatigue from a third consecutive day of best-of-five clashes may sap the strengths of both combatants in key areas.  More aggressive with his serve against Nadal than against most opponents, Murray may lose a little sting on that weapon following a four-set victory over Isner.  For his part, the defending champion may not exhibit his full range of explosive movement, although his rout of Roddick ended in far less arduous fashion.  Yet the Spaniard and the Scot both enjoy outstanding fitness that leaves better prepared than almost any of their rivals to recover from this week’s exertions and engage in an encounter worthy of their talents.  At the 2008 US Open, Murray conquered Nadal in one of his two hard-court Slam victories over the world #2, who has dominated him on the Wimbledon grass but has not defeated him at a hard-court major since the 2007 Australian Open.  During that semifinal here three years ago, Murray pummeled Nadal’s forehand corner with cross-court backhands before opening up the court for a backhand down the line, his signature shot and the weapon that has undone the Spaniard in all four of the Scot’s triumphs against him.  Now more comfortable moving in that direction than in 2008, Nadal can thwart that ploy by redirecting his forehand down the line with the unexpected pace that has caught many of his opponents here off balance.  As he demonstrated against Muller and especially against Roddick, Rafa can comfortably withstand efforts to serve and volley or charge the net behind an average approach shot.  Trusting in his durability, Murray thus must explore his options, meticulously construct points, and adjust to patterns that emerge from across the net before selecting the most opportune moment to strike.

For a set and four games in their Wimbledon semifinal, the Scot executed all of those perilous tasks in accumulating an early lead against Nadal.  At his best, Murray presents opponents with a game that holds no weaknesses, outside a second serve that should encourage the Spaniard to stand closer inside the court on his returns.  But this game without flaws remains a game without the overwhelming weapons of the other members in the top four.  That lack—and Murray’s awareness of it—became glaringly apparent when he pressed his steady but unremarkable forehand too far out of its comfort zone early in the third set at Wimbledon.  When he missed a relatively routine mid-court ball, that shot disintegrated and dragged his overall confidence into the abyss with it.  Unlike the breathtaking forehands of Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal, that stroke can break down under pressure and certainly should draw the majority of the Spaniard’s blows.  In a match between two players so thoroughly familiar with each other’s games, and who even practice together, weaknesses rather than strengths might determine the outcome.  Just as Murray will hope to protect his second serve and swing freely on his forehand, Nadal should seek to crack his first serve with greater pace and to assert himself more boldly on his two-handed backhands.  That shot looked progressively sharper as his quarterfinal victory over Roddick developed, although the American subjected him to so little pressure that the Spaniard could swing away at will.  Under the more rigorous scrutiny of Murray’s penetrating groundstrokes, Nadal’s backhand may prove necessary to keep the Scot at bay until his forehand can seize control of the rally.  If he surrenders too much territory by running around it to hit forehands, the balanced groundstrokes of his opponents will exploit the opening.

Murray and Nadal have played a range of matches over the years:  a few classics, a few wretched debacles, and several of the interesting-but-not-memorable variety.  Rarely have they summoned their best tennis at the same time, as they did in a semifinal at last year’s World Tour Finals.  Unlike Federer-Djokovic, this rivalry still seeks the suspenseful Slam collision that would raise it to a higher plane.