Against the backdrop of thrills and spills in the opening week in the Australian Open—David Nalbandian battling through five sets to beat home favorite Lleyton Hewitt, qualifier Milos Raonic bursting through No. 10 seed Mikhail Youzhny, an in-form Nikolay Davydenko falling in the first round and out-of-form big men Tomas Berdych and Marin Cilic making resurgent runs—some things have remained as predictable as the smiles that light up this joyful tournament.
It was no surprise that Roger Federer’s ballet captivated the Rod Laver crowds with every improving sweep of his racket.
Nor was it a surprise that Novak Djokovic continued to enjoy near-perfect score-sheets and the sleekest of ground-strokes.
No surprise either that Andy Murray has ridden the wave of his excellent autumn form and fitness at the scene of one his finest Major runs. Even the rain clouds drifted apart in celebration of Australia Day’s flowering fireworks over the Melbourne skyline. So special is 26 January that even the tennis—whoever is playing—pauses to take breath at the allotted time.
This year, the illuminated match was the quarterfinal between world No. 1 Rafael Nadal—still on target to win a complete set of consecutive Majors—and No. 7 seed David Ferrer. And the watching crowds continued to hold their breath long after the fireworks were over.
Nadal’s friend and compatriot came into Melbourne with a new title under his belt. Ferrer looked trim, eager and fast in beating Nalbandian in Auckland and seemed to have found new enthusiasm for the game since he considered retirement this time last year. In fact he stood at his highest ranking in well over two years. And yet…
Nadal had won 11 of their 14 encounters and the last seven in a row. Only a sub-par Nadal could fail this time, and there was the rub.
In Doha, Nadal fell ill with flu and lost in the semifinal. He was still not 100 percent as the Australian rounds got underway yet he rocketed through in impressive fashion.
He reached the third round for the loss of just four games and reached the quarters without losing a set nor facing a tie-breaker. When he also confirmed to the press that he was now fully healthy, it became an unspoken truth that Nadal would cruise past Ferrer.
It was soon apparent, though, that Ferrer would not go quietly. He never does. Though small in stature he is big in heart and bursting to the brim with energy, and that showed when he held his opening serve and then set about the Nadal serve. He brought up his first break point, missed it, but persisted through eight deuces to win his reward: a 2-0 lead.
Nadal hit back immediately and order was restored—but only for a second. For onto court came a trainer and off the court went Nadal.
Was it the virus, returned to do its worst? As Ferrer broke again, the true problem was revealed: strapping on Nadal’s left thigh.
At the next change-over the trainer came again, Nadal shook a despondent head, and it seemed he was destined to repeat history. He had, in this very round and on this very court, retired against Murray last year.
But the spirit of the man shone through the bowed head, and he fought on. He broke back in the ninth game: perhaps the crisis had passed, the medication taking the edge off the pain. Ferrer, though, applied the thumbscrews to break and take the set.
Nadal won an early break to love in the second set. But it was a false dawn, not the sun rising on a new start for Nadal but fireworks lighting up the night sky.
The pyrotechnics done, Ferrer took to the court with some rockets of his own and took the second set 6-2. He then rushed ahead 3-0 in the third and it stayed that way to the bitter end: 6-3.
The result put an entirely new complexion on the Murray semifinal, pitting him against a man with a 3-2 advantage over him—though all the wins came on clay.
There is no doubt that Ferrer is enjoying a surge in form and a new sense of attack that may rock the Murray game-plan. An unexpected quarterfinal opponent with an unconventional game tested the Murray concentration more than any other match thus far.
Alexandr Dolgopolov is a jumping bean of a man who can apply shocking amounts of spin, hit lunging and plunging ground-strokes and hit his serve almost before his ball toss is complete.
The exciting Ukrainian took Murray’s first set of the tournament, before conceding the match in four, but that was small recompense for removing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling from Murray’s draw.
Now the untimely injury to a benighted Nadal has cleared Murray’s route to the semifinal without facing a top-10 player.
And he will fully expect to walk onto Rod Laver on final Sunday. But who will face him?
The bottom half of the draw has followed two upward-sweeping trajectories to their predicted intersection: Federer with Djokovic.
Djokovic arrived with three finals and two semifinals from his last six ATP events, the Davis Cup and victory in all three of his Hopman Cup matches.
He suffered an early aberration against Croation Ivan Dodig—a lost tie-breaker—but compensated with two final sets won to zero and two.
On paper, and in practice, No. 6 seed Berdych looked dangerous, but Djokovic turned on his forehand like a beacon to complement the oil-smooth point-winning backhand. He played off both wings with a now-familiar precision and power to both deep corners of the court.
His serve, of such concern in the early stages of 2010, is now setting up his complex web of tactics to perfection—68 percent against Berdych and 10 aces to his opponent’s five.
With a scattering of deft lobs and accurate volleys, Djokovic’s tennis has become a formidable combination managed by an extrovert and maturing personality. It is a crowd-pleasing package.
Even when distracted by rain, a closing roof and—in an inexplicable recurrence of a contact lens problem—a quick trip to the locker room, Djokovic did waver briefly in the second set, but recovered and edged out Berdych in a tie-break. That opened the floodgates and the Djokovic locomotive swept to its destination, 6-1 in the third.
He is, not surprisingly, both realistic and confident about his next challenge:
“Federer is…maybe the most aggressive there is on the tour. You have to be patient and get him out of his comfort zone…I have to be confident on the court, have the right attitude…there is no other way.”
It will be the 20th meeting of the No. 2 and 3 seeds and their seventh in a hard-court Major. Federer holds a 13-6 advantage and has won all three of their last matches, but they are a win apiece in Australia and, in their last Major meeting, Djokovic scored an important victory at Flushing Meadows.
Federer’s run in Melbourne was tested early by Gilles Simon in a fascinating five-setter. That win, followed by a distracted performance against Xavier Malisse in the third round, seemed to knock the rust off the Swiss racket and sharpen the concentration.
By the time he took on the fearsome Stan Wawrinka—himself rolling over Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick like a steamroller—the Federer machinery was purring and the legs were flying.
A serve percentage of 61 against Simon improved through 64 and 69 to 77 against Wawrinka. Meanwhile, his unforced error count dropped from a peak of 53 to 24.
In defence, too, Federer proved that he, along with Djokovic, is one of the most adept in the game. Where Wawrinka scored 24 aces against Roddick, though only serving at 49 percent, he managed just one against Federer, despite serving at almost 60 percent.
Federer was, in fact, at his fluid best in all parts of his game. By the final set, it had turned into little short of exhibition tennis, with drop shots and touch volleys scattered through the match like falling leaves on an autumn day.
Federer, it seems, is rising like cream to the surface in the final stages of this tournament. Djokovic, for his part, is maturing like a fine wine. The combination of the two promises to serve up a syllabub to tempt the taste buds.
And whoever wins may well have his name etched on the trophy by Sunday evening.