Australian Open 2012: What Each Men's Semifinalist Needs to Do to Make Finals
Have you been paying attention, America? In the midst of the NFL playoffs, the death of Joe Paterno and the NASCAR-style sprint that is the convoluted NBA schedule, my guess is you’re part of the other 99 percent, which is completely understandable.
Tennis doesn’t dip into its casual majority fanbase until, at the earliest, the French quarter of its Grand Slam marathon. The Australian Open is simply too early on the calendar, too out of place in our seasonal cycle and too easy to typecast as a poor man’s US Open due to its hard-court playing surface.
But for us one-percenters, the 2012 edition has shone brighter than an under-glorified winter stopgap on the slow track to the summer tennis solstice. Instead, it’s opened our collective eyes to the era-defining perspective tennis fans have been searching for since Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi hung up their sneaks.
Djokovic will face off against Murray and Federer will play Nadal for about the 2,000th time this decade.
They are the same four players that have made up the semi foursome in three of the last four Grand Slams and the same four players that, by some combination or another, have met in every Slam final since Wimbledon 2010, where Nadal defeated Thomas Berdych.
To put it simply, they’re The Beatles of tennis. Everyone else is more like Eddie and the Cruisers. Dating back to the 2005 Aussie Open, only one other player outside the "Core Four"—Juan Martin del Potro at the ’09 US Open—has won a major.
For a while, it was the Federer-Nadal era. They combined to win an incredible 25 of 28 majors between 2004 and 2010. But in 2011, Djokovic elevated himself from proverbial third wheel, Speaker of the House status, to tennis’ Oval Office.
He did so with perhaps the greatest individual year in tennis history that included three Grand Slams and a record-setting 43-match win streak to start the season.
As for the 24-year-old Murray, he’s had so many spellbinding close calls in the past few years that it’s hard not to envision a Djokovic-like breakout in the near future.
They’re tennis’ once- and future-ruling quartet. This tournament has solidified that for the time being. Now let’s see what each semifinalist must do to advance to the final in this latest chapter of the new "Core Four’s" emerging saga
Sorry, Yankees fans. Jorge Posada just retired.
Roger Federer: Beat Rafa for Once
It sounds mind-numbingly simple and obvious. But for some reason, Superman Federer always seems to fall back down to Clark Kent against his Spanish Kryptonite.
Federer is just 9-17 in his career against Nadal and 2-7 in majors. He also comes in on a four-match Grand Slam losing streak against his arch rival dating back to the 2007 Wimbledon final.
These are losses typically marred by a wildly un-Federer-like number of unforced errors. In the 2011 French Open final, Fed made 56 errors to Nadal’s 27.
Rafa’s pace-maintaining, swashbuckling style allows him to keep points alive well past the tipping point of a typical Federer casualty. The inability to put points away throws Fed for a mental loop. But no one is better than Federer at adapting his style to fit a specific opponent.
It’s a widely supported notion among inner tennis circles that Federer is in much better shape than Nadal heading into their latest matchup. This is why it may be the ideal time for Federer to finally beat Nadal at his own rally-heavy game.
Rafael Nadal: Get out of Your Own Way
Eccentric personalities like Nadal are prone to psyching themselves out in moments of weakness. This is exactly what Rafa may be doing based on his pre-tournament complaints about the rigors of the ATP schedule.
While Nadal may have been speaking the underlying consensus that other stars are afraid to express publicly, he came across as foolish and weak when the always pristinely conditioned Federer vouched for the schedule just the way it is.
Nadal’s psyche has already taken a mental on-court hit, where he’s also admitted publicly to physical and mental shortcomings against Djokovic, to whom he lost in the finals of six different tournaments in 2011.
But the rollicking Spaniard usually saves his best days for Federer and as SI.com points out, he could resuscitate his fading dominance with another "vintage performance" tomorrow. All he has to do is convince himself mentally, which has never been a problem against Federer in the past.
Novak Djokovic: Push Through the Pain
Plain and simple. No one in the world is playing tennis better than Novak Djokovic right now.
His weakness free game has yielded three Grand Slams, a six-month run atop the rankings and a record $12 million in prize money over the past year.
In this tournament, he’s ripped through the competition up to this point dropping just a single set against Lleyton Hewitt in the Round of 16. But since the end of the US Open last year, the Joker has racked up a subtle, Kobe Bryant-like laundry list of small injuries and illnesses that are bound to add up if they keep attacking him.
He injured his back and right leg at the end of the 2011 season and tweaked his left leg in a quarterfinal victory over David Ferrer. He also was dealing with an oxygen-sapping head cold throughout that three-set win.
If Djokovic can fight through his health, it doesn’t seem like anyone in the world can beat him right now. But that’s a big “if” against a fourth-ranked mainstay in Murray, who’s still searching for his first career major championship.
Andy Murray: Force the Issue
Throughout his career, Murray has been criticized for his passive-aggressive style of play. He often goes groundstroke for groundstroke with opponents waiting for the other guy to make the mistake.
On his best days, no one transitions from defense to offense faster as Murray often converts on winners from defensive positions. Labeling someone a “pusher” is the ultimate tennis insult. So it’s hard to categorize the fourth-best player in the world as such.
But if Murray doesn’t break through with a major victory soon, he may be headed towards that dreaded label.
Djokovic has no obvious weakness and he rarely beats himself. If Murray is going to finally beat his burgeoning rival on a big stage, he needs to be adopt a more aggressive, issue-forcing, serve-and-volley approach that complements his 6’3" frame.