Gold Rush (VII): Preview of Sunday at the Olympics
Federer vs. Murray: A day after Serena and the Bryan brothers completed their career Golden Slams, a certain Swiss legend aims to join them. By claiming an Olympic gold medal, Federer would have equaled every accomplishment earned by his archrival Nadal and earned every meaningful honor available in tennis. A month after conceding the Wimbledon final to the seven-time champion at the All England Club, meanwhile, Murray eyes what would represent the most significant feat of his career, coming as it would before his home fans. Having won a set and nearly two when they met in July, the Scot can take a few glimmers of hope into a match against the man to whom he has lost three major finals. Had he capitalized upon his chances late in the second set, Great Britain’s major drought might well have ended and Murray rather than Federer stand within range of the Wimbledon/Olympics double. Awash with emotion in the aftermath of that match, he deserves credit for rebounding much more swiftly than he had from previous disappointments. Outside a shaky effort against Baghdatis, Murray has looked the sharpest player of the men’s tournament, and his straight-sets victory over world #2 Djokovic in the semifinals demonstrated a commitment to greater aggression that he had lacked in earlier setbacks. Just as at Wimbledon, the Scot’s first serve has held firm under pressure, while he has advanced more boldly into the forecourt to display crisp technique at the net.
Nevertheless, Federer remains superior in both of those areas, so crucial on grass. Fallible at times in the early rounds, he has not steadily elevated his form with each stage as he did at Wimbledon. Thrust to the edge of elimination by Del Potro, he probably would not have survived that semifinal had he not delivered four consecutive first serves at 11-12, 0-30 in the final set. Admitting to the influence of nerves as he attempted to defuse the spirited Argentine, Federer revealed how keenly he desires the Olympic medal that thus far has eluded him. Now he must revitalize his energies, physical and mental, from his Friday marathon before a gold-medal match that promises plenty of draining baseline exchanges and tense sequences. While the best-of-five format would appear to favor the less consistent Federer, who can find, lose, and rediscover his rhythm more than once, a test of endurance could tilt towards the much fresher Murray. But the mental advantage of remembering what happened on this court last month could prove a significant obstacle for a Scot who struggles with channeling positive emotions. Murray did not sound overly optimistic when anticipating the gold-medal match, despite his sparkling form this week, which suggests either an attempt to temper expectations or a lurking fatalism that could surface if early adversity strikes. Even if he gains the initial ascendancy, as he did at Wimbledon, he cannot afford to settle into the complacent lulls that have cost him pivotal matches before. (Not for nothing does Murray labor under a 2-11 record against top-four opponents in the best-of-five format.) His consistency will prove a more valuable weapon here, though, than it did at the earlier tournament where Federer’s form oscillated less than it did here.
All the same, the match likely lies in the hands of the man pursuing a historic career Golden Slam. Murray suggested hopefully that the unfamiliarity of this situation may undermine his opponent’s poise, but a first gold-medal match should not disconcert Federer more than his first major final, which he won comfortably here. Having soared to title after title on Centre Court, including some of his most memorable, Federer looks more at ease floating across its battered turf than he does anywhere else. Like Serena, he probably recognizes that 2012 offers his last significant opportunity to earn a gold medal, so the resulting sense of urgency should sharpen his focus. Drawing inspiration from his fervent fans, Murray should find the situation less intimidating than competing for a major title and may be liberated by the assurance of at least a silver medal, a splendid accomplishment itself. Or that assurance may encourage him to accept his fate too readily, whereas Federer would find no meaning in anything less than gold. Sooner or later, the Swiss master has managed to accomplish all of his principal goals in his career, even as he ages, and few signs suggest lately that this trend will end.
Del Potro vs. Djokovic: In the wake of a resounding semifinal loss to Serena, Azarenka wasted no time in rebounding to record a decisive victory over Kirilenko for the bronze medal. Facing a similar challenge is Djokovic, who capitulated in dispiriting fashion late in his semifinal against Murray by losing seven straight points and dropping serve at love to end the match. With his dream of an Olympic medal shattered, the Serb somehow still must find the motivation for a second straight bronze. But perhaps even more daunting is the challenge faced by Del Potro, who toiled for four and a half hours against Federer only to confront the prospect of perhaps leaving London empty-handed after all. Although he might bring more motivation than Djokovic to the bronze-medal match, his energy might languish at a low ebb.
Never having won a completed match from the Serb, the former US Open champion did win the first set from him in Davis Cup last fall before his nemesis retired injured. Through their other four meetings, on hard courts and clay, Djokovic lost just a single set as his return blunted Del Potro’s serve and extended the rallies until his superior movement and footwork could prevail. Armed with a breathtaking wingspan on his own return, the Argentine has not profited from that advantage until now but has allowed the Serb to dictate the points on his serve. A fiercer competitor who exudes more visceral emotions, Djokovic often has left the more introverted Del Potro looking subdued if not cowed across the net. At his best, however, the Argentine does display his confidence in a quieter way with intense glares or brief clenches of fist. To prevent Djokovic from winning his second straight bronze medal, he will need to establish his presence not only with his heavy forehands but with positive body language. While the stakes lie relatively low for the former bronze medalist, Del Potro could become the first Argentine man to win a singles medal of any sort. That feat could signal his resurgence, or yet another deflating loss to a member of the top-four could extend the theme of his comeback from wrist surgery and spark further questions about his competitive resilience. Valiant losses like his semifinal against Federer impress only if a player can build upon their encouraging aspects and translate them into key victories against opponents of a similar quality.