It’s about as good a men’s semifinal line-up as you can get without Rafael Nadal tomorrow for the Wimbledon men’s semifinal. Like just about all of us, Nadal will be watching the action on TV from his couch as Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer clash for a 27th time and then Andy Murray continues his annual Wimbledon quest against the streaky JW Tsonga.
A very turbulent week one has given way to a more sedate, in-form week two and if that trend holds it possibly dictates favorites Djokovic and Murray will advance to the Sunday final. But Federer and Tsonga will have a lot to say about that.
At stake in the first semifinal is not just a return trip to the title bout but also the No. 1 ranking. Djokovic, who first reached the top of the tennis world a year ago, will hold on to that No. 1 position for a bit longer by beating the Swiss. Federer of course is oh so close to that Pete Sampras record of 286 weeks at No. 1, and he may never get a better chance than this weekend needing just six sets to reclaim the throne and tie the Pistol.
So let’s get right to my picks.
Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer
Federer leads this rivalry 14-12, winning the seven of their first nine. But lately it’s gone the other way. Djokovic has taken six of the last seven encounters winning eight consecutive sets.
Djokovic began this most recent run back at the US Open overcoming a two set hole to Roger in the semifinals. Then he beat Federer twice on clay in straight sets at Rome and then again at the French Open semifinals last month.
They’ve played 27 times but never on the grass. And that helps Federer who’s far and beyond the more experienced player lush lawns. But is that enough?
Djokovic is unquestionably the more in-form player. He’s No. 1, he’s won three of the last four Slams reaching six of the last seven finals. And this week he’s only lost one set, otherwise he’s been very sharp, in fact sharper, arguably, then he was a year ago when he won his first Wimbledon.
Meanwhile, Federer continues to show his age. The 30-year-old escaped the clutches of Juliean Benneteau then got through a bad back against Xavier Malisse. On Monday, it was another thirty-something Mikhail Youzhny’s turn. The Russian, who has been no match anyway for Federer having lost all 14 matches against the Swiss, was likely mentally elsewhere celebrating the birth of a new baby which occured just before the match.
Still, Federer excecuted against Youzhny and most importantly there were no hints of back issues.
So even if Federer is 100% healthy it’s still going to be awfully tough for Roger. In Slams Novak’s going one way, Federer’s, who managed just one single final appearance in the last nine, is going the other. Djokovic also seems to be focused and very comfortable on these courts. He’s owned Federer recently and even though the surface tips toward Fed, Djokovic is just the better player right now.
I like Novak’s movement, his flexibility, his groundstrokes and he’s been returning well, and that could be crucial. In my mind Federer’s best chance to win is to have a huge serving day otherwise, all things being equal, Novak’s going to win and he could do it easily.
The pick: Djokovic in four
Andy Murray vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
This match really boils down to Tsonga. That simple. If he redlines he wins. In fact, on a grass court when he redlines he’s all but unbeatable. The question is can he do it for three sets on the most famous tennis court in the world against a competent foe like Murray who’ll have the crowd well behind him?
As much as I’d like to see it I don’t think he can.
Murray is plodder. He mopes along, often plays the percentages and occasionally goes offensive. New coach Ivan Lendl, who himself never won Wimbledon, has been working on getting Murray to show more aggression. And this week he is serving better. But if he tries to go defensive and Tsonga’s on, it could spell doom for the Scot.
Head-to-head, though, Murray holds the big edge 5-1 having won four straight! And two of those wins during the streak came on grass at the 2011 Queen’s Cub final and at Wimbledon. So Andy knows the problems Tsonga presents and he knows the solutions. But Tsonga did manage to win tiebreaks in both their grass meetings and I think he’ll do the same tomorrow.
What interesting is that with Nadal no longer an obstacle Murray’s been struggling. He had some problems with Marcos Baghdatis early on and after easing past a fatigued Marin Cilic, he was really pushed by David Ferrer. So for me, that’s the pressure.
Meanwhile, Tsonga been his usual free-swinging, hot-and-cold self in recent wins over Mardy Fish and Phil Kohlschreiber, and he’s got the serve humming.
In the end though I think Tsonga’s won’t stay on song long enough. Once the flame runs out Murray’s versatility prevails. But it won’t be easy.
The pick: Murray in five
ESPN has full coverage starting at 8am ET.
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