The sun has shone on Dubai at last. Not only did the weather banish its rainy start to drench the oasis-blue court in sunshine, but the best three players also turned on the heat when it counted.
The quarterfinals had been noteworthy for two things. First, the two top seeds, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, were both broken in the opening games of their matches.
Second, the opponents of both of them produced tennis of real style and variety: Sergiy Stakhovsky against Federer and Florian Mayer against Djokovic. Nevertheless, the stars of the show advanced in straight sets.
The reigning champion Djokovic then found himself toe-to-toe with the No. 3 seed, Tomas Berdych, who scored another straight-sets win over the all-court delights of Philipp Petzschner. The Czech was one of the few able to boast of not dropping a set in the tournament, and he carried that head of steam into his match against the Serb.
For his part, Djokovic seemed what can only be described as out of sorts. An interview after his quarterfinal win showed an almost expressionless demeanour, and that same lack of purpose characterised his play against Berdych.
Indeed, it was hard to reconcile the Serb who came into his semi with a 12-match winning streak on the tour—including a straight-sets victory over this very opponent in Melbourne—with what he afterwards described as a “catastrophe…the worst match this year.”
Berdych, to his credit, has begun to supplement his big serve and forehand with a willingness to come to the net to volley. That certainly paid dividends in the first set, when barely a cigarette paper separated them for most of the early stages. By four games all, it was 25 points all.
Then suddenly, the Czech brought up two set points in the 12th game. He did not capitalise on them, but compensated in the subsequent tie-break by running out the winner.
As the shadows lengthened on a centre court enjoying its hottest day of the tournament, so Djokovic’s grip on the match strengthened, helped not a little by Berdych’s first serve dropping to 32 percent.
The Serb managed the first break of the match for a 3-1 lead, yet even that did not set the match alight, and there was little flow or sparkle from either side.
Then came the first serious warning signs for Berdych as, at 5-2 down, he called for treatment to his left thigh. Suddenly it became clear why his serve had deteriorated: his lead leg, which had carried a knee support all week, was hurting.
Berdych had more treatment after losing the set, and the seeds were sown. Djokovic secured an early break, Berdych ground to a halt and he conceded the match at 2-4 in the third.
Federer’s opponent in the other semi was the unseeded Richard Gasquet who had taken out his dangerous compatriot, Gilles Simon, in three sets in the quarters.
Their semi could not have been more different. When Federer announces ahead of a match that his opponent is “a great talent…one of the guys I really enjoy playing the most,” you know you are in for something special.
If there was any doubt about the fireworks these two can produce, it was necessary only to recall their first match in the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo six years ago when Gasquet, just 18, came from a set down to beat Federer in a final set tiebreaker.
Back then, the Frenchman’s body language and personality were confident, and while he still has sparkling shot-making and wonderful touch, he lacks his old conviction, and that was to be his downfall against Federer.
Gasquet’s case was not helped by Federer finding better form with each Dubai round, and the aggressive Swiss hit his off-forehand for no fewer than three outright winners to break Gasquet’s opening game.
As well as spotting the Frenchman’s serve with ease, Federer played every shot in the book at will—and his is a very thick book. It all flowed with ease: the backhand topspin winner down the line, touch volleys and overheads and, of course, the serve, which topped a 79 percent average.
It was inevitable that he would break again, and he duly did in the seventh game, and went on to close out the set, 6-2, with a delight of a backhand drop shot.
Gasquet found a little more self-expression in the second set but the statistics confirmed the error of his defensive stance: he continued to strike the vast majority of balls metres behind the baseline.
On the dot of one hour, however, Federer gave him an opening. Two double faults, a shanked backhand and an easy volley into the net handed Gasquet a break and a 5-3 lead. But Federer immediately compensated for his lapse with his most aggressive game of the match. It left the uber-fit Federer heaving for breath, but it won him the break back.
At 5-5, he repeated the trick, struck the ball early, deep and hard, and kept Gasquet off balance to break for a second time.
The crowd’s roar rose in anticipation of what they knew was coming. It started with an ace, was followed by a forehand winner, a flying drive volley and finally a serve down the centre to win a love game, the set (7-5) and the match.
So yes, the sun has really come out in Dubai, and the desert has flowered. The final that everyone wanted is just around the corner.
Federer and Djokovic have already played each other 20 times, the last 16 of them in either a final or a semifinal.
They have met six times in the last six months and have exchanged the No. 2 and 3 rankings almost as many times—they are currently separated by just 85 points. No wonder the rivalry seems to get more intense with each match.
Federer has not reached the finals of either the Indian Wells or Miami Masters—the next events on the tour—since he won both in 2006, and he will want to lay down his marker for the season by impressing at both this year.
How he responds in Dubai to the man who is currently his greatest rival could prove highly significant for his entire 2011 campaign.