I’m a big fan of following the trend. Followed in finance, it can lead to great wealth and fortune, and its predictable nature can be quite telling in tennis: The hot player or prevalent theme usually prevails. I bring it up because for the last three or four months, the country of Spain has been winning just about every major sporting event under the sun.
In May and June it was Rafael Nadal returning to prominence with another perfect clay season. His friend Pau Gasol did his part helping the LA Lakers to another championship in the NBA.
Nadal then hit the Paris-London double again, winning Wimbledon, and a week later he joined his countrymen in South Africa to celebrate Spain’s first World Cup. Not soon after Alberto Contador collected yet another Tour de France title.
This week, Nadal will try to continue Spain’s summer reign in New York where just two wins (or six sets) will not just give him the US Open title but also earn him a career Slam, a third straight Major on three different surfaces and enough message board fodder for Rafa being the GOAT to last a lifetime.
But there’s work to do to get those two wins.
After adjusting his serve just days before the US Open, Nadal has reached the semifinals for a third straight year but this time he’s playing and physically feeling the best he’s ever felt this late in the season. And it shows.
Through five matches Nadal’s hasn’t surrendered a set and has only lost that new serve of his just once. On Thursday, Nadal hammered his friend and countryman Fernando Verdasco in straight sets to record his 19th straight Grand Slam win.
Today, in the first match of the first men’s semifinal, Nadal takes on Mikhail Youzhny. The streaky Russian survived a spirited 5-set challenge Thursday afternoon to beat Stan Wawrinka 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. Like Verdasco, I have to question Youzhny’s fitness after having played a four-hour match with the reward being Rafa.
But unlike Fernando, who has now lost all 11 career matches to Rafa, Youzhny actually has four wins against Nadal in 11 tries with those victories coming on the hard stuff they’ll be playing on in a few hours.
In fact, Youzhny beat Nadal in the US Open quarterfinals in 2006 in four sets. But circumstances are far different now. Even though Youzhny’s back in the last four I don’t think he’s at the level where he was during that 2006 run. And Nadal’s much better and far hungrier now.
That said, having four wins under the belt should still give Youzhny some uncommon confidence against Rafa, and I think he hangs around enough to push a tiebreak and maybe get a set. But if his legs are even the slightest weary from his recent run it could very quick afternoon.
If there’s a spoiler to a Federer-Nadal final it’s likely coming from the second semifinals. In the marquee match of the afternoon it’s Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, and once again the “trend” comes into play. This will be their fourth straight meeting at the US Open and unfortunately for the Serb Federer has won all three contests losing just one of 10 sets played.
Said Federer of Novak, “I think this obviously is his best surface, even though on clay he’s very good, as well, and slower hard court, it all works well. And on the grass he’s good, too. But I think this kind of favors his play the most, kind of a faster hard court, because he can pick up some incredible balls, you know, half volley them, redirect them. It helps maybe serve a bit more, and on the return he can, you know, zone in a bit, and all of a sudden he’s really tough to pass, you know, when he’s returning. That’s what makes him one of the best players in the game right now, and especially on this surface he’s obviously in the top 3 or 4. That’s why he’s been able to play consistent here at the Open. He’s obviously waiting for a breakthrough where he can win this title. But for the last three or four years he’s gone through me and he hasn’t been able to get it done.”
And Roger’s right, Novak does being a lot to the table, but he simply hasn’t gotten it done recently in the Slams when he’s reached this stage.
But I have a sneaky suspicion this time could be different. While Federer has been extremely sharp so too has been Djokovic. Unlike the summer when at times he appeared lifeless and disinterested, Novak has been in-form and winning with ease since a harrowing 5-set opener against his countryman Viktor Troicki.
Said Novak, “I like playing under the radar sometimes. It releases the pressure on myself, and just focusing on my matches, doing the job, and winning the matches. Of course, as the two best players in the world, they are the most dominant in five last five, six years. Biggest favorites to get into the finals, and I’m sure that the crowd wants them in the finals. But, you know, I will try not to make that happen.”
Overall, Federer leads 10-5 in their series but Novak did win in Basel last fall and in their most recent meeting in Toronto he had chances in a three set loss.
But in the end, it’s hard to go against the trend and against Federer. Someday Novak is going to break Federer’s NY spell, but the numbers suggest it won’t happen Saturday.
I will say that in reaching this stage in the tournament both players, Federer and Nadal, have not dropped a set, but their opposition hasn’t been the toughest. The only seeded players Nadal faced were his best friends Verdasco and Lopez.
Federer has had it relatively easy as well with Mathieu and a bunch of lefties. Soderling is a dangerous character but the Swede’s worst surface is arguably outdoor hardcourts and he has just one win now in 13 attempts against the Fed.
Meanwhile Djokovic had maybe the most impressive win of the foursome with his straight-set slammer over Mardy Fish on Monday. And even Youhzny raised some eyebrows with his performances against Isner and Wawrinka.
So maybe we shouldn’t discount Djokovic and Youzhny. And maybe we could we be in for surprise or two today.
Youzhny, a man who once slammed his head with his racquet, sounds game.
“Yeah, I’m ready to be bad person,” joked Youzhny about breaking up a Fed-Nadal final. “I love to be bad person in this case.”
You might very well love it, Mikhail, but the tennis world certainly wouldn’t. We already have one Russian in a singles final, we don’t need another!
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