As Melbourne’s temperatures rose to the mid-40s in the second week of the Australian Open, it wasn’t just the tennis that was scorching. Players on both the women’s and men’s sides began to fall by the wayside, overcome by heat and injury—amongst them defending champion Novak Djokovic.
He was one of seven Europeans blanketing the quarterfinals but, in the gruelling climate that hit Melbourne’s final week, he wasn’t able to keep pace with the other top men.
The low profile he had maintained through the tournament thus far—progress that was eased by avoiding matches against any seeds—was blown up by his retirement against Roddick.
Was it the temperature? Was it soreness in the shoulder? Or could it have been the unspecified malaise that comes upon him at difficult points in some tournaments?
As Federer said, in the frank type of response for which he’s become famous, “Of course, he’s done this before.”
By the time Verdasco and Murray met in Round Four, both had put out a seed with relative ease, but the former’s impressive progress was raising eyebrows, and not a little excitement, amongst pundits and crowds.
This five-setter might have warranted the “match of the round” tag had it not been for Federer’s mighty battle against Berdych the day before. And the outcome of that match may have influenced who would become the eventual winner of the Australian trophy.
It has been rare in the illustrious career of "the great one" (as the EuroSports commentators repeatedly call him) to go two sets down. Fortunately, it is not rare to see him summon every morsel of determination when his back is against the wall. (He’s on safe ground when making barely-concealed jibes at Djokovic’s proclivity for retiring when the going gets tough!)
He pulled back the match, game by game, to achieve an important win. Yes, important, as his subsequent matches proved. It happened at the US Open. It happened, of course, at this very tournament a year ago (though on that occasion, glandular fever prevented him from following through). At Flushing Meadow, his five-setter against Andreev gave him the mental and physical edge to lift his game in the final rounds.
Here, too, he ground out a terrific victory that provided the perfect whet stone on which to hone his skills to their sharpest. He filleted del Potro in their subsequent quarter with some of his best play since he triumphed in New York. "Sublime," cooed the usually proper Virginia Wade in the post-match debate.
So with two of the favourites out of the picture, there was room for the most talented of the sub-four group to make their marks in the quarters. After del Potro’s dismissal in the bottom half, the main interest became focused on Nadal’s half: Simon, Tsonga, and Verdasco.
The Spaniard’s performance against Murray was quite stunning but, in these unforgiving temperatures, could he possibly maintain the same quality into the next round?
In fact, he went on to be the revelation of the tournament.
Always a hugely talented and charismatic player, he had seemed destined to languish in the shadow of his all-conquering younger compatriot. The absence of Nadal in Spain’s Davis Cup victory, then, was just what the doctor ordered.
There is no question that Verdasco’s pivotal role in Argentina boosted his self-belief and he must have been channelling that new confidence into solid training during the offseason. He came to Melbourne full of energy, power, and aggression, and Tsonga was outclassed, despite playing some great tennis.
So the Verdasco/Murray encounter may have been edged out of the top slot in Round Four. But the Verdasco/Tsonga match was a treat of power shot-making, immaculate serving, and creative rallies—and the pick of the quarters.
Of course, the ultimate test awaited him in the semis against the Spanish colossus himself. Verdasco may have progressed further in a major than ever before, but he’d failed to beat Nadal on all six previous occasions.
The No. 1 seed dismissed Simon in a tough three-setter. It was not a great-looking match, comprising long, unimaginative rallies enlivened by an occasional foray to the net. Nadal looked as bored as many of the spectators probably felt.
So we were left with some mighty fine-looking semifinals. In one, there were two handsome, strutting, bronze-skinned Spaniards going head-to-head: friends and rivals, left-handers, powerful hitters of the ball, and noisy groans aplenty from both side of the net.
The other match was a battle of the fast-playing, clean-cut, men: both loose, slim builds, clean-shaven, right-handed, with smart brains and a dry edge to their humour.
If the Spaniards know each other well, Roddick and Federer must feel like a married couple, having shared years on the tennis tour. They like the professionalism, dedication, and hard-work that each brings to his game. Federer, though, will like even more that he invariably gets the better result—15 wins out of 17 so far.
This year has seen a revitalised Roddick, though, with a new coach, new diet, and new training regime. He has also brought more variety to his game in this tournament.
So what could he bring to the table against Federer? A lot of beef, it seemed, but sadly for him, Roger served up a banquet of delights. Roddick may have terminated the promising run of Robredo and forced retirement from Djokovic. But against Federer, he managed just a slightly longer match than their last semi in Melbourne in 2007—a little over two hours this time.
It is not as though Roddick played poorly: His winner-to-error count was excellent. But when your biggest weapon is your serve, and your opponent serves twice as many aces as you do, you know you’ve got a problem. And on return, Federer is able to read Roddick’s serve with unnatural ease, blocking it back to the centre of his opponent’s court, often straight into his incoming body.
In this match, Federer followed up his dart-fast service returns with ground strokes of perfection, producing running drives on forehand and backhand. He also moved superbly.
If Roddick thought he was fitter than ever before, he still has a significant hill to climb to match Federer’s condition. And it is unlikely that he will ever match that fast, tight footwork.
Federer can change direction on a sixpence. Add in the focused, relaxed confidence he brought to the quarters and semis, and the combination is awesome.
Whether it is enough to counter the brutality and the increasing variety of Nadal at full strength is the debate on every tennis-lover’s lips.
The Spaniards’ match was like watching two young bulls in their prime fighting for dominance of their home range.
Sweat poured from both in buckets. Forearms seemed to grow in circumference with each passing game. Serves were pounded harder and deeper to combat each challenge. It was a stunning exhibition of power play, leavened with acute angles and brilliantly constructed rallies.
There were trainers; there were "comfort breaks"; there was a heart-breaking net cord to all but seal the first set; there were 95 outright winners from Verdasco’s racket; and, had he reduced his error count just a fraction, he may well have sealed this match. After five-and-a-quarter hours, there was just one point between them: 193 versus 192.
Platitude it may be, but you had to feel sorry that either player should lose. Verdasco will be devastated to have lost by such a narrow margin but he must surely take huge confidence in his ability, shot-making, and fitness into the rest of the season, and look for a substantial climb in the rankings. On the basis of this tournament, and this performance in particular, he could be knocking on the door of the top six by the end of 2009.
Nadal will be grateful that there is a day’s adjournment before he has to lock horns with Federer. For the latter’s part, he may be regretting that his alternate-match-day rhythm is disrupted by an extra day off. He’ll need to come out sharp, fit, and fluid to keep his flame burning under the Melbourne cauldron. And Nadal will be on fire after his outstanding semi victory.