Revenge of Wimbledon's Past

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As wild and sometimes as wacky as this Wimbledon has been, the men who many pundits forecast as the finalists are each one match away from firming up that date. The surprising thing is who they must hurdle in order to glance across the net at each other on Centre Court Sunday afternoon.

Top-seeded Novak Djokovic will face No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro, while No. 2 seed Andy Murray gets to look down the barrel of a cannon fired by No. 24 Jerzy Janowicz.

You could call this fortnight the revenge of Wimbledon’s past. After the All England Club bowed to public (and commercial) pressure in 2002 and slowed down the once lightning-fast and slick grass courts, the similarity of the new all-rye-grass courts to hard courts became a dominant theme at the event. But this year the old character of Wimbledon appears to have re-asserted itself. Some have put the regression down to an excess of moisture and humidity—in other words, not entirely unusual cold and rainy weather in England—others to caretaking differences following the use of the courts during last year’s Olympic Games.

Whatever the case, the two men looming the favorites in the semis got to their current stations the old-fashioned way—they rained down serves that made their opponents’ teeth rattle, and they used the relatively low, skidding bounce to enhance the efficiency of their relatively flat but stinging groundstrokes, particularly on the forehand side. Even more than del Potro, who still doesn’t seem entirely comfortable moving forward to the net (a pre-requisite in those glory days of fast grass), Janowicz represents the kind of player who would have been a factor at Wimbledons of yore.

I say a “factor,” not necessarily a winner. It’s important to remember that distinction, for then as now, nobody got to hoist the Wimbledon trophy simply because he served out of his mind; nobody but perhaps Goran Ivanisevic. Every other champion at Wimbledon won because he was first and foremost a great athlete, which is exactly why del Potro and Janowicz have every reason to rest uneasy. It may be a throwback Wimbledon, but the champ is likely to be the same old, familiar, multi-purpose athlete—today’s equivalent to a Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras or. . . Roger Federer.

So let’s look at the match-ups.

Novak Djokovic vs. Juan Martin del Potro
Djokovic leads head-to-head 8-3

The first and foremost question is, how will del Potro’s left knee respond to treatment after he almost retired following his nasty fall in the first game of his quarterfinal with David Ferrer?

“The ankle is good (he also hurt his ankle earlier in the tournament) and the knee is not good,” he said following an incredibly strong performance against Ferrer. “But I’m allowed to play (by the examining physician). Still bothers me in the left outside of the knee. . . But the doctor says nothing too dangerous, and that’s positive.”

Other than that, Djokovic has plenty of reason to fear del Potro from what we saw yesterday. Last year, Ferrer ran del Potro out of town in the fourth round, exposing the difficulty so many big men have with the relatively low bounce on grass.

This year, del Potro buried Ferrer in an avalanche of serves and atomic forehands. The tennis he played was reminiscent of the way he simply imposed his XXL-size game on Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final; this has been his strongest Grand Slam since he bullied his way to that title.

But Djokovic is right on top of his game, too. As he said after keeping his perfect record in sets intact against Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals: “I feel good about myself in this moment. I think I actually play a better tennis on grass than I played two years ago when I won this tournament. For now I’m feeling good. I’m No. 1 of the world. I have no reason to be concerned about my game.”

Such a frank and direct show of confidence must have a chilling effect on del Potro—or it might, were it not for how the 6’6” giant is serving. Djokovic also has the gods of vengeance snarling on a short leash; del Potro denied the Serb at the Olympics on these same courts last year and, cognizant of Nole’s heartfelt patriotism, you know that one really had to hurt.

Still, Del Potro been broken just twice in the tournament, and he’s won 87 percent of the points when he put his first serve into play (Djokovic’s conversion rate is 78 percent). Given that Djokovic’s advantage is greater when it comes to second-serve points won (60 percent to 46), the importance of first-serve conversion in the semifinal is obvious.

One other factor del Potro will have to contend with is Djokovic’s greater willingness to play from inside the court, which will take time away from the Argentinian in a way that no baseliner like Ferrer can. Djokovic was able to do that against Berdych—a player who has some of the same strengths as del Potro. You can bet Djokovic will be trying to take time away from del Potro.

“I’m trying also to step in the court a little bit more,” Djokovic said. “Today I wasn’t able to too much because I had a very aggressive opponent who plays a lot of deep shots. I managed to step in and just tried to be a little bit more aggressive. That brought me a victory.”

The other day, del Potro said, “Winning here on grass for one Argentinian guy could be very, very special,” No doubt about that, but the combination of Djokovic’s return proficiency and his superior ability to win without having a great day at the service line ought to be enough to tide him through a win in four sets.

Andy Murray vs. Jerzy Janowicz
Head-to-head tied 1-1

That lone win by Murray was in a 2009 Davis Cup match, when Janowicz was still just 18 and nowhere near his current level. Janowicz victimized Murray last October in his breakout tournament, the Paris Masters 1000. Rest assured that Murray isn’t taking anything for granted in the run up to this semifinal. He also knows that Janowicz’s winning percentage on first-serve points—90 percent—is superior to even that of del Potro.

In the quarterfinals, Janowicz’s Polish countryman Lukasz Kubot earned just six break points, converted none, and offered a more telling assessment of the way Janowicz dominated the match with his serve: “There was only one chance (to break him), I think—on the set point when there was the rally. That was the only chance I got in this match.”

So Murray faces a challenge very similar to the one Djokovic will meet, and with similar tools—a fine and flexible return game coupled with a greater ability than his opponent to win points when he has trouble getting his first serve in the box. Janowicz has been winning just 36 percent of his second-serve points, while Murray has an outstanding 55 percent conversion rate in that category.

The emotional factors in this match also are interesting. Murray is striving to become the first British male subject since Fred Perry in the 1930s to win Wimbledon. But truth be told, he’s grown accustomed to the pressure and, more important, shown that he can handle it.

If Murray loses, it likely won’t be because he feels the pressure that everyone still talks about when it comes to his performances at Wimbledon. I’ve actually gone around to the other camp, and see just positives in his unique relationship with the tournament and crowd.

“I just think it’s a great atmosphere,” he said of the crowd and its desperate mood during his terrific fight-back from two sets down against Fernando Verdasco. “It was extremely noisy. I love it when it’s like that. They were right into it pretty much every single point (near the end). That’s kind of what you remember. . . It was good today, especially when I went behind.”

But Janowicz also has some emotional fuel not available to all his peers. He’s the first Polish male ever to reach the semifinal of a major and, at age 22, the 6’8” power server is just growing into his game—and career. As he said after beating his countryman Kubot: “This is really big thing for me. This is what I was waiting for. This is what I was dreaming about. So as I can see, sometimes if you are dreaming about something really hard, it can actually happen.”

Murray has become jaded to the challenge of Wimbledon, and I mean that in the best sense. He knows just what he must do, what he’s up against, and how all the rest is just white noise.

“He has a big serve,” Murray said of Janowicz. He’s a big guy with a lot of power. He also has pretty good touch. He likes to hit dropshots. He doesn’t just whack every single shot as hard as he can. He’s played extremely well here. . . he’s  a tough player.”

Tough, but not impossible for a returner and defender of Murray’s caliber. And as a first-time Grand Slam semifinalist, Janowicz will be more prone to feeling overwhelmed on Centre Court, which slowly but surely has become more like an office than a crucible to Murray. The Scot will take it, but not before the Polish bombardier snatches a set.

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