Fields of Glory (XIII): Wimbledon Men's Semifinal Preview
As soon as Rosol struck his memorable blow, minds turned towards the highly anticipated semifinal in the top half of the men’s draw, viewed by many as the de facto final. The spectacularly gifted pair of survivors in the lower half of the draw might beg to differ, and their match deserves attention from onlookers beyond the restless natives of these rainy isles. All the same, the matchup between present and past (but perhaps future) #1s contains all of the ingredients that can produce a classic. After it ends, the victor can claim the distinctive honor of having conquered one of his leading rivals at every major.
Djokovic vs. Federer: For the first time in more than a decade, Federer enters a match at Wimbledon as the underdog. Even beyond their relative rankings, his opponent’s recent dominance over him and superior tournament performance suggest that a victory for the Swiss master should come as a surprise, albeit by no means a shock. While they never have met on grass, arguably Federer’s best surface, Djokovic has established his mastery over his former persecutor since the start of 2011 by sweeping six of their seven meetings and all four away from clay. In fact, the Serb has swept their last eight sets in a stretch that started with his comeback in the US Open final and continued through Rome to a relatively routine dismissal of the Swiss at Roland Garros. On the court where he had stunned Djokovic a year before, interrupting what likely would have become a calendar Slam, Federer squandered lead after lead with forehand errors and a languishing first serve. Unable to hit through his rival’s superb defenses, he found himself with nowhere to go and nothing to do but launch desperately low-percentage gambits.
When the battlefield switches to grass, though, Federer will find more potent remedies for the suffocating court coverage across the net. Able to dominate more effectively behind his serve, he can exploit one of the two areas in which he holds a clear advantage over Djokovic. His other area of superiority, the forecourt, happens to play a significant role on this surface as well. Still among the ATP’s elite volleyers, Federer will want to take time away from the Serb by shortening the points and cutting off angles at the net. But the passing shots that Djokovic can unleash with such ruthless precision, especially on his backhand, will punish an ordinary approach. If he can pin Federer into his backhand corner with inside-out forehands and cross-court backhands, moreover, the world #1 will trouble the man who would supplant him in the same way that Berdych and Tsonga did over the last two years. The six-time champion probably will run around his weaker wing to strike forehands, but he must locate those shots perfectly to avoid exposing the open court to his fleet-footed rival. As he proved at Roland Garros a year ago, Federer can deflate his stronger, fitter, more balanced foe with a performance that channels his vintage best. The setting of Wimbledon’s Centre Court, which has witnessed his greatest triumphs, might motivate him to roll back time as he did on that breathtaking afternoon in Paris.
Through five rounds, most intakes of breath involving Federer have concerned the unforeseen perils from which he extricated himself, most notably a two-set deficit against Benneteau and a back injury in an otherwise unremarkable match against Malisse. While an overwhelming victory over docile doormat Youzhny provided him with a crucial injection of optimism, few would dispute that Djokovic has resembled a far more impressive juggernaut so far. Securing his twelfth straight victory at Wimbledon against an overmatched Florian Mayer, he has conceded only one set and has not reached 5-5 in any set throughout the fortnight. On the other hand, the defending champion has suffered short lapses sporadically, such as his protracted effort to serve out the match against Mayer and poor service games late in the first set of three matches. Whereas his previous victims lacked the talent to capitalize on those flickers of doubt, Federer probably would pounce alertly. Within range of the #1 ranking, which most never expected him to gain, the six-time Wimbledon champion will gain motivation from thoughts of that prize as well as a 17th major title that would separate him further from an encroaching Nadal. Although not an accomplishment of historic significance, the opportunity to defend this title and protect the top ranking would confirm a crystallizing identification of Djokovic as the player who dominates everything except the clay and yields there only to Nadal. In short, it would confirm him as the new Roger Federer.
Tsonga vs. Murray: Thwarted by Rafa in the semifinals each of the last two years, Murray must have felt a wave of relief sweep through him when Rosol decapitated his half of the draw. But the Scot fell to his fellow Andy in the same round three years ago, and he will face an opponent with a playing style somewhat similar to Roddick this time. From a certain perspective, Tsonga’s curious mixture of ferocious power on serve and delicate touch at the net mirrors the contrasting dimensions of grass more neatly than the games of other leading contenders. His habit of hurtling towards the net at the first opportunity stirs memories of champions here when the grass stood taller and played faster, although that tactic shone brilliantly last year when he upset Federer in a quarterfinal. In a quarterfinal at the previous Wimbledon, Tsonga severely tested Murray by winning the first set and establishing a slim lead in the second-set tiebreak. A pair of overly casual swings cost him two points on his serve, however, and he meekly resigned himself to defeat following that disappointment. Unfolding in a similar manner was their last meeting, on the grass of Queens Club, where Tsonga won the first set before Murray steadily wrested control from him, one pinpoint passing shot at a time.
Through their first five matches, both men have charted routes more adventurous than Djokovic’s march but more purposeful than Federer’s ramble. Losing the first set to Fish and the second set to Kohlschreiber, Tsonga won two critical tiebreaks midway through those matches that earned him the momentum for good. Perhaps he learned a lesson from letting a fourth-set tiebreak slip away against Djokovic in Paris with overly passive play, for some of his most scintillating winners came in the thirteenth games here. Assigned a more difficult group of opponents, Murray dropped one set each to Karlovic, Baghdatis, and Ferrer and needed to scrape through a fourth-set tiebreak in two of those matches. The home hope’s accomplishments against a trio of challengers with such dramatically divergent sets of weapons, from a towering serve to flat groundstroke lasers to impeccable court coverage, bodes well for his resilience in the next two rounds. From those strenuous tests, the battle-seasoned Scot should gain confidence for the ever tenser moments that surely lie ahead. Especially auspicious is his solid serving, which culminated in the quarterfinals with an ace on match point after several previous deliveries had frustrated Ferrer when he stood on the edge of a commanding two-set lead. All the same, Murray never needed to leave his comfort zone against the Spaniard, similar to the Scot in his fondness for longer rallies and carefully manipulated point construction. Under the pressure of Tsonga’s forward-rushing style, the fourth seed will need to rely more upon his reflexes and instincts. And he cannot afford to let his opponent dictate play, as he has in each of his three previous semifinals here. If Murray fails to assert himself by exploiting the offensive opportunities that present themselves, Tsonga can hammer through him with ease as he did en route to the final at the 2008 Australian Open.
Like Kerber and Radwanska in the first women’s semifinal, both the Scot and the Frenchman seek their first appearance in the Wimbledon championship match. Unlike the two women of Polish descent, the pressure rests squarely on the shoulders of exactly one man in this semifinal. Whereas Tsonga can showcase his usual bursts of insouciant shot-making, secure in the knowledge that he has met if not exceeded expectations, Murray bears the weight of British anxieties that mount with each of his victories. Wondering whether the unthinkable could happen this year, the Wimbledon audiences have abandoned their customary reverse in his matches as they exult at the good news and groan at the bad. Their hero has handled this nerve-jangling situation with remarkable poise throughout his career but may have suffered from it at this stage, where his emotions have turned too swiftly towards the negative side of the spectrum before. In addition to optimism, the key for Murray (and for Tsonga) will lie in first-serve percentage. Since such a gap in power separates their first from their second deliveries, each man must minimize the occasions on which they resort to the latter. While a mundane performance by both men should result in a victory for Murray, Tsonga at his best can reach a level of transcendence where the Scot cannot follow him. An entire nation prays that the Frenchman does not find that ethereal zone on Friday.