The Logical Result
It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me as far as predictions go. I started by picking Andy Murray and Elena Dementieva to win their first Slams—probably won’t go down those two roads again anytime soon. Then I stated that Serena was virtually a lock in the semis, and she proceeded to . . . well, you know. And yesterday I speculated that the Rafael Nadal-Juan Martin del Potro match was shaping up to be a classic, one that Nadal would eventually win by dint of his greater experience. Ha! It ended up being a classic, all right, a classic beatdown by del Potro in which the 6-foot-6 Argentine made the No. 2 player in the world look like a glorified junior.
Not that anyone minds—we all know that the only thing sports fans want out of predictions is for the pundit who makes them to be wrong. So I'll go ahead and make one more. We have Roger Federer and del Potro in the final today; if this isn’t a heated rivalry or even a particularly charged encounter—in June, these two ended their five-set semifinal in Paris in the customary way for the men these days, with a big sappy hug—it is a logical and satisfying final between two guys who have had stellar seasons, and who played some of the finest tennis of their lives to win their semis in straight sets.
Del Potro and Federer have each surrendered two sets along the way, though the only note of real trouble for either came in Federer’s quarterfinal, when Robin Soderling found his range and came within one point of extending their match to a fifth set. But by the time Federer was wrapping up his next match, against Novak Djokovic, it was clear sailing and high-flying once again. He punctuated the win with what even he said was the best shot he’s ever hit, a between the legs passing shot winner. If nothing else, this shot—was it hit with topspin?—guarantees that Serena’s tirade won’t be the only highlight we get to see from this tournament in the future..
This is also a logical final because del Potro can measure his (significant) progress in 2009 by his matches with Federer. At the Australian Open, he was slapped with two love sets; on that evidence, he appeared to have a big-match problem. But in his next encounter with Federer at a Slam, in Paris, he went a long way toward shedding that reputation. Looking as self-assured as he ever has for long periods, he led the eventual champion two sets to one. While he lost, he didn't cave ignominiously down the stretch. Now del Potro gets a third chance to measure himself against the best.
At Roland Garros, the Argentine did a good job of attacking with margin; he got on top of rallies and took the right chances. Whether it was destiny, or the Federer Effect, or both (or are they the same thing?), he just couldn’t maintain that precarious balance for five sets. The clay courts required too many perfect shots. Both of these guys are better on hard courts; they each win by attacking and creating openings, rather than with consistency, and they each have an uncanny knack of coming up with winning serves in desperate moments. Del Potro has some advantages: His shots are flatter and get through the court more quickly, and he can use his two-handed backhand to attack with his return (though he typically chooses to hang back and direct the ball to a corner with that shot). Of course, Federer brings his own assets: He’s a better volleyer and more instinctive in his transition game, he’s a superior defender (though I’ve been impressed with how much del Potro has improved in that department since last year’s Open, when his footwork was much choppier), and he can create the angles that you need to get a big guy like DP on the move. Like most matches these days, only more so, this one will go to the guy who can hit the first forcing shot in a rally most often. If anything, this is more important for del Potro, who will have a tougher time getting back onto level terms once he’s behind in a rally.
It will also go to the guy who plays with more confidence at the end of each set. In the semis, del Potro cruised while Federer won when he needed to win. There's no question about Federer's motivation; he's appeared just as hungry and slightly anxious (a good sign) as ever these two weeks. And I don’t think there’s any question that DP is ready to make the final step; he’s surprised us so often with his orderly improvement that we really can’t be surprised by anything he does anymore. But Grand Slam finals have an atmosphere of their own, unlike any other match—time seems to slow down. The Open is a big, tense stage, and it tends to intimidate at least person in each men’s final. When was the last one that went five sets? Agassi-Martin 10 years ago? There must be something special, and scary, about playing in Ashe and knowing that, as they say, “the whole world is watching”—the stadium is so big, it probably does feel like time has stopped and all possible eyes are on you. Del Potro has never felt that before, so we don’t know how he’ll react. What we do know is that Federer, the five-time defending champion, doesn’t mind it at all.
Champion: Roger Federer