The semifinal between world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and world No. 3 Roger Federer is a reality. The two of them will meet in their first non-round robin semifinal since the 2005 French Open. Any other time since then, they've met in the final and for the first time since those days, it will be in a tournament that neither of them is the favourite to win.
These days, tennis is all about Novak Djokovic's winning streak of 23 matches in 2011.
The Serb hasn't lost a match since Federer took him apart at the WTF in London last November. Since then, he's gotten his fair share of revenge, beating Federer three times and only conceding a set. Djokovic is more or less regarded as a lock in the final, though he will have to battle his way through against resurgent Mardy Fish.
With Roger and Rafa, there's not an ultimate favourite in the same sense. The two meet for the 23rd time and the eighth time on hard court. Rafa leads overall 14-8, whereas Roger leads the hard court 4-3, three of those wins coming at the WTF and the other at the 2005 final here in Miami in a spirited comeback after being two sets down.
Who will win tomorrow? Both of them have had fairly easy ways through their draws, so being tired should not be an issue, though Nadal had a harder time getting though his quarterfinal against Tomas Berdych.
Are nagging injuries a problem? Well, it appeared that Rafa had some trouble with his right shoulder, but the extent of it didn't prevent him from playing the last two sets against Berdych. We can only assume and hope he'll be fine for tomorrow.
In the Indian Wells final Rafa had problems with his serve and subsequently his entire game. His forehands sailed long, backhands went nowhere and he almost got bagelled in the third.
In his quarterfinal against Berdych Nadal was far more clinical in his game.
His serve was as good as ever, regularly landing in the mid-120's mph. The forehand was as its dictating best especially in the first and third sets, where Nadal was hitting winners at will with it. And when he occasionally went to the net his hands were soft and his volleys were crisp.
Berdych was hardly allowed a chance to get into the match in the first set, as the Spaniard kept the errors to a minimum and hit winners when he needed them most.
And the defense?
Well, Berdych certainly had a hard time hitting through it but did succeed quite well for parts of the match. Earlier in the week, Alexander Dolgopolov couldn't hit through in a much anticipated clash that went flat as Rafa steamrolled him.
I haven't had a chance to see much of Federer this tournament, partly due to his three-game quarterfinal against Giles Simon, but judging from the results and the few games I've seen, he looks fine without being sublime. He's done the necessary, not conceding sets and prolonging the action.
What does the surface tell us?
It's hard court, so theoretically, it should favour Roger a little. However, these days a hard court can be made however you like it and the Miami hard courts are among the slowest. This was evident in what could have been a slug-fest between Fish and Juan Martin Del Potro, but turned out to have quite a few long rallies. According to Federer, it actually is the slowest and plays like a clay-court except for the sliding.
The match will be played in the evening, making the conditions even slower and the balls heavier. All this speaks in favour of Nadal. When we then take into account that Nadal has looked quite sublime against both Dolgopolov and Berdych, he seems the favourite heading into the match.
So what does Federer need to do to beat him?
The strategy is well-known but hard to execute. He did it perfectly in London, yet the fragility of it became clear when he lost the second set due to his single poor service game the entire match. What if he makes two bad service games tomorrow?
Federer must repeat his London strategy, being the relentless attacker whenever the opportunity arises. He must keep Nadal off his balance and avoid rallying with him. He should finish points quickly at the net and accept the occasional stunning passing shot from Rafa. His first service should be above 60 percent, and the 70's wouldn't hurt.
On the deuce side, he should use his slice serve out wide, a tactic he used with great success in London. Attacks on Nadal's second serve should be standard.
Finally, the backhand will have to be clicking since that will be what Rafa is gunning for again and again. Does he need to succeed in all these departments? Well, it depends on which Rafa shows up. But if it is the one who has been showing up in Miami so far, Federer will need something close to his full arsenal to beat him.
And Rafa's tactic? Well, it's more simple. He basically needs to do what he's always doing against Federer: get Federer into a rally, pound on his backhand until it breaks or until he gets the opportunity to go for an inside-out forehand winner.
Federer has won two of their last three matches. They most likely battle for the right to challenge the current world No. 1 when it comes to hard court, the undefeated Djokovic.
Will they be up for the challenge, or will Novak stay undefeated until we reach the clay?
Hopefully, we'll witness another epic from the two all-time greats. But it is a strange feeling when the two of them meet without battling for the title.
With Novak in the mix now, this may become a more permanent situation.
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