What better way to spend a Roman holiday than at the Foro Italico this weekend, where cypresses and colossal statutes survey a spectacle worthy of the imperial city. No fewer than forty-eight major titles belong to the six major champions in action on Saturday, of whom five have held the #1 ranking.
Djokovic vs. Federer: Colliding eighteen times in the previous four seasons at three different majors and five different Masters 1000 tournaments, these rivals have not met since a Saturday afternoon in New York that still must reverberate through their memories. As tournament followed tournament and month followed month, no sequel followed the five-set thriller in which the Serb not only snatched away a two-set lead from the Swiss but added insult to injury with one of the most famous shots in tennis history. That forehand return of serve, which saved a match point, lifted Djokovic to the climax of his historic season and deeply affronted Federer. Occasionally hostile, frequently chilly, and never more than stiffly respectful towards his rival, the 16-time major champion surely simmers with plans for revenge. After the world #1 thwarted him three times early in 2011, Federer gained immense satisfaction from spoiling his perfect year at Roland Garros, and his elevated motivation shone through a semifinal that ranks as one of his finest late-career performances.
Far from their best in the preliminary rounds, the two top men approach their bout with questions hovering over their condition. Understandably unfocused after his grandfather’s death, Djokovic limped through Monte Carlo and Madrid, where he devoted more energy to criticizing the blue clay than playing on it. This generally tepid attitude persisted in a three-set victory over Monaco in the third round, which displayed a Serb without the steely purposefulness that had defined him during his tenure in the top ranking. Although a more complete effort against Tsonga in the quarterfinals demonstrated improvement, Djokovic still does not resemble the implacable, indefatigable blur of movement and shot-making that sacked Rome last year. For his part, Federer wondered initially whether he would withdraw from the tournament but likely found his pre-semifinal draw too delicious an opportunity to spurn. True to expectations, he dominated all three of his overmatched opponents outside a late second-set stumble in the middle match. But the Swiss star rarely needed to showcase his vintage form and thus confronts the challenge of a steep jolt upwards in competition as he contemplates the Matterhorn-like task of defeating Djokovic and Nadal on consecutive days.
Three weeks after Rafa overwhelmed him in Monte Carlo, the world #1 can ill afford to falter in lackluster fashion against his other main rival on the eve of Roland Garros. Eyeing a historic Nole Slam, Djokovic has not defeated either of this generation’s two legends since the Australian Open. Not a finalist in Rome since 2006, Federer fell to the Serb on this slow court in an unsightly three-setter three years ago. While that memory may not stir a thirst for revenge, the Shot of last September certainly will. And, with his confidence at a higher peak than it has climbed in years, Federer should claim the mental advantage essential to such an evenly contested encounter.
Ferrer vs. Nadal: If Rafa resembles the Don Quixote of Spanish tennis, pursuing lofty ambitions with honor and pride, David Ferrer evokes Sancho Panza. Consistently ranked second among his countrymen, he has remained within sight of Nadal in the rankings but at a deferential distance. Only when the 10-time major champion falters physically, as at the 2007 US Open or 2011 US open, does Ferrer step into the breach at his expense. Not since their very earliest meetings, however, has he dared to trample upon the terre battue that Rafa long has claimed as his kingdom. Instead, Ferrer’s offensively limited style has served as an ideal screen on which Nadal can project his signature brilliance, not unlike the purpose that Roddick has fulfilled for Federer on faster surfaces. A runner-up to the top-ranked Spaniard in Monte Carlo last year and in Rome the year before, he has lost final after final to him in their home tournament of Barcelona. This year threatened to halt that trend when David came within one point of winning the first set and within two points of winning the second. On a day when he summoned his best tennis, and Rafa did not, he still fell three points short of a stunning triumph.
The definition of a dirt devil, Ferrer lacks the raw power to penetrate his countryman’s defenses and, like virtually all other opponents, cannot depend on outlasting him from the baseline. The inside-out forehand that comprises his main weapon rarely ends points outright until he carefully manipulates the rally, which he usually lacks the leisure to do against Nadal. Armed with a more formidable forehand, the world #3 can trouble his compatriot by interrupting his usual cross-court topspin with flat blows down the line, explosive even on clay. Although not one of the ATP’s best, Nadal’s serve also vastly trumps the unreliable delivery of Ferrer. In short, no area of the older Spaniard’s game provides him with a foundation from which to consistently trouble his younger nemesis. Bringing no strategy to the court other than relentless effort, he must hope for a pedestrian performance from Rafa, and then to win three more points across two sets than he did earlier this month. Such a hope looks unfounded at the moment following three bulletproof performances by the reigning Roland Garros champion. Surrendering his serve only once in the week, Nadal struck 34 winners and yielded just 10 unforced errors in over two hours against Berdych, one of this clay season’s most dangerous threats. Throughout the tournament, he not only has converted an outstanding percentage of first serves but has protected his second serve with authority.
Before the Barcelona tournament this year, Ferrer said humbly that winning a title there would feel like a dream come true. Meet Rafael Nadal, merciless crusher of dreams.
Li vs. Serena: Congratulations to the Chinese superstar on snapping a four-match losing streak in quarterfinals and reaching her first semifinal since Sydney, before the Australian Open. For that accomplishment, Li surely would have preferred a reward other than facing a woman who improbably has not lost a match on clay this year. Those who prepared her obituary after demoralizing reverses in Melbourne and Miami quickly ditched the script when she swept through Charleston and Madrid, conceding just four games to each of the top two women. While many including ourselves felt that red clay would pose an altogether different challenge, Serena has marched within two victories of dispelling those doubts as well. Already high on the short list of Roland Garros contenders, she would establish herself as the clear favorite there if she sweeps the two most significant clay non-majors. Planted before her, though, is a woman who has not flinched from standing toe to toe with this generation’s leading lady, no matter how grand the stage. Li extended Serena to two tiebreaks at the 2009 Australian Open and threatened her for a full set at Wimbledon that year, late in a fortnight widely regarded as one of the American’s most magnificent performances ever (a high standard to meet). In fact, they have contested five tiebreaks and three three-setters in their six meetings, suggesting that a fiercely competitive semifinal lies ahead.
The key to Serena’s victory in five of their six meetings, her superior serve has proved decisive in seizing those tiebreaks and tense sets. On red clay, where she has not faced Li before, diminished ace totals suggest that this advantage may recede somewhat. Perhaps more significant is her ability to stay patient in rallies, for the defending Roland Garros champion patrols the baseline resiliently and absorbs pace with penetrating replies of her own. An indication of her focus, Serena’s footwork sometimes falters when her opponent forces her into longer rallies than she would prefer. If Li can turn this semifinal into a war of attrition rather than an exchange of first strikes, she might chip away at a competitive appetite that has survived much longer in the American than expected. To that end, she should temper her tendency for flamboyant shot-making that litters the court with errors as well as winners. A simpler, steadier style centered upon deep groundstrokes down the middle of the court could reap rewards by forcing Serena into riskier ways of creating angles. Although women of her offensive talents prefer to brazenly fire their weapons rather than exploit an opponent’s weaknesses, Li should realize that she cannot overpower this particular foe at her own game and craft a smarter set of tactics with which to unsettle her.
As Paris looms, though, few would blame either the 2002 champion or the defending champion for failing to banish it from their thoughts. Barely a week from the season’s second major, neither Serena nor Li may wish to engage in a titanic struggle with the real battlefield on the horizon. Far from implausible is the prospect of another quarterfinal or semifinal between them there.
Sharapova vs. Kerber: A remarkable 16-2 in Rome, the reigning empress of the Eternal City exuded her trademark ferocity late in tight sets and close games through her first three matches. None of her six sets has come easily, not even in a tense opener against Christina McHale, but Sharapova dug into the trenches most fiercely during two pivotal tenth games. Saving set point after set point when Ivanovic served for the first set at 5-4, she managed to strike her targets boldly without donating the reckless error that would have let her opponent escape the pressure. Under pressure herself at double break point when she served for the first set at 5-4 against Venus, Sharapova played intelligent, controlled tennis to escape her only serious threat of the day. Especially notable in her victories against both of her fellow former #1s was her return of serve, which punished the Serb and the American for missing their first option and severely deflated the value of weapons central to both of their games. Sharapova’s own serve has not overwhelmed this week as it did in Stuttgart, but the shot has not deserted her at her moments of greatest need. At this stage in her career, she cannot realistically ask for more.
Recalling her fortunes at Indian Wells, Kerber narrowly avoided disaster in her first match (this time, against the unheralded Rodionova) and parlayed her escape into a momentum surge. Into the semifinals with a strange, topsy-turvy victory over an ailing Kvitova, she will gain confidence from having defeated Sharapova en route to her first career title at the Paris Indoors. Avenging a resounding defeat at the Australian Open, that victory illustrated the German’s ability to learn from her setbacks, which has fueled her maturation into a contender. In rallies that pit strength against strength, though, Sharapova’s backhand more often than not should prevail over her opponent’s lefty forehand. Thus, Kerber will need to alter that dynamic by redirecting forehands down the line, a tactic that Kvitova has executed to great effect in her meetings with the Russian. Equally undeterred by the high part of the net, meanwhile, the latter will not hesitate to launch a pre-emptive strike of her own down the line. Gifted with keen anticipation, Kerber covers the court more efficiently than her burly physique would suggest, although she shares Sharapova’s tendency to attempt an all-or-nothing blast when thrust wide of the sidelines.
Unlikely to alter their strategy for the surface that least suits their games, these two women should play essentially the same style of tennis that they would bring to a hard court. If the match extends to a third set, one may expect tenacity from both sides of the net. While Kerber has won all thirteen of her three-setters in 2012, Sharapova has won eighteen of nineteen since the start of 2011. Just as outstanding in semifinals over the past year, the defending champion knows that determined resistance will await as she seeks her fifth final of the season.