Two Moments, Two Semis

by: Steve Tignor | November 27, 2009

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Jmdp What was your favorite moment from London this week? Mine didn’t happen on the court, or in London for that matter, but in the Stateside studio of the Tennis Channel. Even if you’ve been watching on a different outlet, I think you’ll appreciate it.

Near the end of the second set between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro—it may have been in the tiebreaker—Federer stepped up to serve desperately needing a point to stay in the match, and by extension the tournament. In the booth, Jimmy Arias stated that it was a must-win moment for him. Approximately half a second later, Federer fired off an ace. It was a nice shot, and an important shot, but hardly a startling one coming from him. What was astounding was what came next: Arias did not say “that’s what champions do.” Depending on how much tennis you watch, this may not sound all that newsworthy. But I found my eyes welling with tears. Tears of joy, of freedom. I had forgotten that a well-played shot at a crucial moment by a Grand Slam winner could be followed up with any other words.

What was your second favorite moment from London? This one happened on the court for me, after the match between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. The loser, Nadal, who had finished the week 0-6 in sets and played about as ineffectively and dejectedly as he ever has, took a moment to salute the audience, to sign a few autographs, and even to share a respectful pat on the shoulder with Djokovic’s father in the stands. The only thing that troubled me about this wonderfully sporting gesture was that it looked like the kind of thing that athletes do when they’re retiring.

OK, on to my real purpose here, to preview Saturday’s semis at the World Tour Final—just had to share those two little tales.

Roger Federer vs. Nikolay Davydenko

Was it possible that Robin Soderling wanted to see Davydenko in the semis rather than Novak Djokovic? You could be forgiven for wondering after the way Soderling lost to the Russian on Friday, by hitting a sitter forehand all the way to the backstop on match point. But that’s what round robins do, they scramble players’ normal motivations. Andy Murray fails to hold serve when he’s down 1-5 in the third to Federer and it costs him a spot in the semis. Djokovic wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, goes into tank mode against Soderling, and he’s out, too, despite having gone 2-1 and beaten Davydenko, who advanced. The bottom line, of course, is that these guys have to know the rules of the event and play accordingly, even if it goes against their normal tendencies. And if you think the head-to-head record within a group should decide who moves on, rather than total sets and total games, you’d have been stumped by Group A this year, where Murray beat del Potro, del Potro beat Federer, and Federer beat Murray. The only thing that was clear was that Fernando Verdasco, the guy they all beat, wasn’t going anywhere.

So, back to Federer-Davydenko. The first stat you must know is that Federer is 12-0 in their head to head, and that he has dropped just one set to the Russian in their last nine matches. The second stat you must know is that Federer is coming in with a day of rest, and Davydenko is coming in having just finished a three-setter in the late match the night before—if there’s a flaw with this event, it’s that scheduling quirk/issue.

Do I need to tell you a third factor in this match, or is that all we need to know? There are all the normal caveats, of course. Federer has been up and down in this tournament, losing at least one set in each match and starting slowly all three times. He has rushed his forehand at certain moments and failed to serve his way out of trouble at others. And while his obvious desire to beat Murray resulted in him finding his best form, his obvious desire to beat del Potro resulted in him pressing for much of their match, going to the drop shot well once too often, and letting his frustration get the best of him in the end.

Davydenko will, as they say, having nothing to lose (until he gets ahead, that is). And he’s way beyond due. But wasn’t that the joke about the Generals, the team that lost to the Harlem Globetrotters on a thousand straight nights? They stayed due for decades.

Juan-Martin del Potro vs. Robin Soderling

There isn’t a lot to go on in the head-to-head here. They’ve split two matches, one of which came in the small Aussie Open tuneup in Auckland last year, and the other in 2007 in Davis Cup. The key tactic is the same for both of these long-swinging bashers: Get the other guy moving, preferably side-to-side. Each of them is absolutely lethal when he gets a chance to set up in the middle of the court.

Del Potro is the better all around player, with a touch more touch in the forecourt and a more penetrating backhand. His confidence and motivation were shaky at the start of the event, but he’s steadied himself and begun to build the kind of battering-ram momentum that he had at Flushing Meadows—while del Potro wavered in the second set against Federer on Thursday, he looked calm again in the third. Soderling’s game has more holes, but he’s looked completely sure of himself all week. I thought he was tired in the third against Davydenko, who lifted his machine-like game toward perfect automation near the end. Unfortunately for both Sod and Kolya, there will be no rest for the weary on Saturday.

How else would you expect an 11-month season to end?

Enjoy it, it’s almost over. And if it happens to end with Federer playing del Potro, won't that be an intriguing way to go out? You know Sire Jacket, I mean the Goat, doesn't want to lose to the slow-walking, slow-challenging galoot three straight times.

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