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NEW YORK—Whatever else may obtain on the eve of the U.S. Open semifinal clash between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, this much is certain: Federer is beautifully positioned to collect a little New York-style payback, and to emerge at the end of this Grand Slam as the man who spoiled Djokovic’s almost perfect year.
Given the way Djokovic has run herd over all comers in 2011, it’s easy to forget or discount that, just 12 months ago at the same stage of this event and on the very same court where they will meet, Federer had two match points against Djokovic, who slipped the noose and went on to win. Federer has a right to feel that Djokovic owes him.
Of course, Federer—now No. 3 in the rankings behind No. 1 Djokovic and Rafael Nadal—carved out a pound of flesh at the French Open earlier this year, when he ended Djokovic’s near-record winning streak (at 43 matches) in the semifinals. To beat him again at the U.S. Open would send Federer’s stock zooming, no matter what happened in the final, because Nadal himself has been flummoxed by Djokovic all year, having lost all five of their meetings.
So what are the chances that Federer can pull off the upset? Better than you might think—if you understand that a player can be flying high while still flying under the radar. Much attention has been lavished at this event on defending champion Nadal and his current nemesis, Djokovic. But Federer has been playing some devastating tennis.
The promoters have managed to hide Federer right out in the open. Take his last match, against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—it was scheduled for Wednesday night, after an already long and full day (thanks to the backlog created by rain). The match was interrupted early on by rainy mist, and by the time Federer crushed Tsonga in straights only Federer’s most devoted fans had the energy—or desire—to pay attention. But note: Tsonga is the same guy who upset Federer at Wimbledon; here, Federer hammered him, losing just 10 games in three sets.
It’s been that kind of fortnight for Federer. He’s lost just one set so far, in the fourth round to Croatian bombardier Marin Cilic. Looking ahead to Djokovic, Federer said, “I think we're both gonna play aggressive. I like playing against him because it's a battle of the baseline a bit if you like. He’s taken it up to a bit of a higher level, but mostly in terms of confidence.”
As puffed-up as Djokovic is at the moment, Federer’s record against him on hard courts is an outstanding 11-8. Granted, Djokovic has been an entirely different player this year, and has beaten Federer three times in four 2011 meetings. But Djokovic has also showed signs of slowing down (he couldn’t possibly ratchet it up, right?) in recent weeks.
In Cincinnati, the last major warm-up before this tournament (and just the second event for Djokovic after he won Wimbledon), Djokovic complained of fatigue and a sore shoulder. He gave up in the final against Andy Murray before it was finished. And at times here—most notably in his last match, against his countryman Janko Tipsarevic—Djokovic has looked less than overpowering.
Tipsarevic is no Federer, and he must be considered a Djokovic minion (the two are great friends and Davis Cup teammates), which makes it that much more surprising that he was able to give Djokovic all he could handle as the two split tiebreakers. Tipsarevic would sustain a leg injury and abandon the match after losing the next set and more, but even Djokovic conceded that he was less than satisfied with his form:
“I think I need to step on the court in next match and just be close to the line, be more aggressive. I think the last two matches I have been starting very slow. I'm very passive. All the credit to my opponents, I mean. . . But, yeah, I will try to have that (quick step) in the next match.”
The only caveat I’d add is that it isn’t all the easy to summon up the kind of energy and eagerness that Djokovic is referring to, but given his record this year, and the opportunity this event presents for improving it to a three-Slam season, Djokovic will have no shortage of motivation.
In terms of the match-up, I think the key elements will be the serve and return of both men. Federer needs to take control of points, especially on his own serve, in order to prevent Djokovic from jerking him all over the court. Feed Djokovic enough second serves and he will make you pay by putting you on the run. Conversely, if Federer can attack Djokovic’s serve, he’ll be better able to push him back from the baseline—and open him up to attack. The shorter the points, the better the chances for Federer. Djokovic has the edge if the rallies become lengthy and physically punishing.
“He’s been having an amazing season so far,” Federer said the other day of Djokovic. “So he’s the challenge right now in the men’s game. We have had particularly good matches here at the U.S. Open, and I have the feeling it's going to be something similar again.”
If you know how Federer operates, you can view that last line as a shot fired across Djokovic’s bow. And keep in mind that Federer is 3-1 against Djokovic inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
I like Federer’s attitude. I like that he hasn’t complained about being overlooked. I like that he’s hammering opponents and showing no mercy. Sheesh, you’d think the guy could win this thing.
The Pick: Federer in four sets.