Two weeks ago, Roger Federer’s era was almost over, and even winning a slam for the champion was considered a monumental task. As of today, Federer is the favorite to win the Roger’s Cup at Toronto (you think?), and is probably a bigger favorite than Rafael Nadal at the U. S. Open.
Two weeks ago, Federer was criticized for his post-match comments after his loss against Thomas Berdych at Wimbledon, and it was said that the big hitters in Berdych, Robin Soderling, and Juan Martin del Potro have figured him out. Yesterday, Federer beat one of them when that person was playing an extremely high quality match.
People like to write off champions very quickly. I've said before too that the North American turf is where Federer feels at his absolute best, despite his better results and absolute dominance on grass. And primarily, because this is where he can hit even the backhand winners at will due to the faster pace and lower bounce.
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The two semifinals today couldn’t have been more contrasting in the way they turned out, but ultimately they had the same underlying story. Despite Andy Murray’s success against Nadal on the synthetic turf, Nadal has usually had the upper hand in the rivalry. And due to this, Murray has always come with the mindset of “all-or-nothing.” He knows that his routine counterpunching style will be murdered by the Spaniard, and the only way to come on top is to hit big and huge, make Rafa run all around the court, and hope for the best.
He displayed exactly that attitude in their meeting at the Australian Open (which was the best I had seen Murray play to date) and he had a similar mindset today. And while in that match, Nadal was still running Murray close, he has many other problems on the faster turf. First, his serve, which was so effective at Wimbledon, fails him here. As much as Nadal’s serve has improved, it still has loads of limitations—he cannot hit a good wide angled serve from the deuce court to unbalance the returner (which he does effectively from the ad court), and he cannot hit a bomb down-the-T from the ad-court (which he can do from the deuce court).
Murray knew this weakness of Nadal makes him a much more readable server, and with the extraordinary returning skills of the Scot, Rafa was pretty much running around the court with a good Murray return. And once Nadal is on the run, he cannot dominate with his forehand like he does on natural turfs. Murray did well to make sure that his cross court forehand was deep—even if lacking velocity—and the backhand is of course his strength, and hence Nadal was struggling to find space and unleash his huge inside-out forehand.
Even when Nadal was on the offensive, he knew that he could not hit a winner unless he goes for broke, because his topspin forehands would be returned back nice and deep, rather than high and short due to Murray’s great retrieving skills. He started aiming for the lines and missed them as a result.
Of course, for all this to work out well, Murray had to make sure to get out of his comfort zone, and be aggressive on both his returns and the ground game, or else perish away with Nadal’s relatively stronger offense. Murray realized it and executed it perfectly.
A similar scenario was faced by the other two semi-finalists, albeit at different moments during the match. Novak Djokovic came out sleeping, and Federer came out firing on all cylinders and before the crowd settled into the match, Federer was up a set (6-1) and a break (leading 2-0) with Djokovic almost down and out. Djokovic realized he had nothing to lose, and went berserk. He started attacking Federer’s second serve brilliantly, and read the first serves nicely, traded blow after blow from his backhand to Federer’s forehand, and never flinched an eye to hit a forehand winner—his weaker wing—close to the lines.
The one sided affair for Federer slowly turned a little uncomfortable, followed by competitive, and followed by defeat scaring at his face. At 4-4 and 15-40 down on his serve in the decider, the situation was desperate for Federer; as he couldn’t afford to miss one first serve, or Djokovic will blast a fast deep return on his second, and take control of the rally. Federer—who was struggling to land a first ball in the court for most of the third—responded with three consecutive first serves, two of them aces, and one a service winner, and confidently closed out the game. Unable to break, Djokovic had his face to the wall serving to stay in the match at 5-6. He couldn’t land one first serve for the first five points and ultimately shanked a backhand wide on the match point.
Today was all about execution at the most desperate moments—for Murray it was the whole match; for Federer and Djokovic it was at different points in the match. Of course, things could have been different had Nadal challenged a Murray’s second serve at a break point up in the first set (which could have possibly won him the set), but the result might not have been different because of the way Murray executed his game plan. Similarly, the result could have been different in the second semifinal had the two players swapped their mindset when push came to shove. It was Federer who came out with a better one when it mattered.
And tennis at the very top depends highly on this factor.
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Federer has shown flashes of the form he displayed while winning at Cincinnati last year, but he can get a lot better. The forehands are still going long. The backhands are still missing by a margin. The first serve still demands higher numbers. The important thing, though, is he has started to win these close matches which he was conveniently losing during the earlier part of the year. Against Berdych, it was 7-6 in the third, today it was 7-5 in the third when he faced two virtual match points on his serve.
Murray matched his performance at the Australian Open Quarters today in Toronto, but as it happened in the finals at Melbourne, playing Federer is an entirely different ballgame than playing Nadal. It will all come down to how much comfortable Murray will feel operating outside his comfort zone against a Federer who is brilliant, erratic, but supremely confident.
Prediction: Federer in three sets.