By Matthew Mcgladrigan
One hundred and twenty eight men walked out onto the hard courts of Melbourne Park on the opening two days of the first Grand Slam of the year in Australia. Slowly but surely they’ve been bowled down one-by-one and, now, just four players are left. It’s the four we thought it might be (and we probably hoped it might be). They’ve each won their little quarter of the draw. The sheer consistency of these four players can only be admired. One might say we could almost just skip the first week and a half of the majors to these semi-finals. But that’s the beauty of these tournaments; there’s always some odd matches here and there – the top guys put on the ropes by less famous players, producing absolute thrillers.
One match in particular springs to mind, where the world number one and defending champion was tested to the limits of his abilities by a Swiss (Boris Becker’s favourite expression) – and no, it wasn’t Mr Switzerland himself. These two games are what tennis fans around the world want to witness though: the best in the sport taking on each other. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and David Ferrer are into the Australian Open semis.
Make no mistake about it, but Serbian Novak Djokovic has been put to the test in this tournament. That’s what happens when you’re at the top of the rankings – everyone around you hunts you down and plays their best tennis against you. The Serb has risen to the challenge though. It all started off straightforwardly with the brushing aside of Paul-Henri Mathieu, Ryan Harrison and fiery Czech Radek Stepanek in rounds one to three. Then, Stan Wawrinka really nearly did his great friend Roger a massive favour (well, and himself), pushing Novak to a fifth set by winning a tremendous fourth set tie-break, 7-5. In a match lasting a lengthy five hours and two minutes, the No. 1 finally prevailed 12-10 in the fifth. 15th seed Wawrinka gave a more than excellent account of himself throughout, with his famous backhand in particularly fine form. Djokovic showed his ultimate battling skills though, as he fought through adversity to triumph.
Just the day after next he took on dangerous Czech Tomas Berdych in the quarter finals. The 5th seed has never really given Djokovic many problems and apart from taking the second set, he didn’t again. The Serb extended his record to 12-1 against Berdych, who really blew hot and cold throughout the match. To progress to the next level, the Czech has to work on his movement and his ability to stay in long rallies because Djokovic just overwhelmed him in that department. Fighting to keep the point going more would have been crucial in tiring out Novak, who had played that five-set epic two days before. Djokovic’s serve is working well and the power he gets on defensive shots, to turn them into offensive ones, is still extraordinary. Despite a few hiccups though and some examinations, the world number one is where he wants to be: in the semi-finals and in contention to win the title for the third straight year.
His opponent for Thursday’s last four clash will be 30-year-old soft-speaking David Ferrer. This is his second semi-final Down Under and he will be desperate to remove that tag which many rest on him of being “the best player to never reach a major final”. His progress has been relatively smooth, apart from a grueling battle against fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro (who we had fun with at Wimbledon last year when he wanted to challenge every call in the match I witnessed against Gasquet) in the last 8. Belgian Olivier Rochus, Tim Smyczek (who took one set off him), crowd pleaser Marcos Baghdatis and Kei Nishikori were dispatched with some ease. Then Almagro, taking advantage of a Janko Tipsarevic retirement to reach his first Australian Open quarter final, popped up and gave Ferrer all kinds of problems. Almagro took the first two sets against his compatriot 6 games to 4 and served for the match at 5-4 in the 3rd. But the experience of Ferrer showed as he powerfully broke back and then snatched the set 7-5. Once again Nicolas served for the match at 5-4 in the 4th, but the 4th seed grabbed the initiative and got the tie-break to earn a deciding set. By comparison, that set was a walkover for David Ferrer, winning it 6-2. So the 4th seed has indeed been challenged too and spent some time out on court.
The Serbian and the Spaniard are two of the fittest players on the tour, though, and will undoubtedly be in their prime on Thursday. Does Ferrer have what it takes to knock the champion off his podium? I think it’d be great to see him properly enter that group at the top as you feel he’s still that little something behind. He has the consistency and movement; he has the depth to his shots. Does he have the power or the serve to earn him free points every now and then? It’s going to be another almighty challenge for the Spaniard but he’s not one for giving up and not digging in. After surviving that scare against Wawrinka, Djokovic is stronger. Can Ferrer get into that first final? He’s going to have to play the match of his life to do so against the world No. 1.
Moving over to the bottom half and the two men who have danced their way through to Friday’s semi-final. These two were part of some huge encounters in 2012, with both the Wimbledon and Olympic final at SW19 just weeks apart. It was one-a-piece in those matches and I’d suggest that this contest on Friday is also too close to call. Many are saying that this is now the Djokovic-Murray era, taking over the Federer-Nadal one. How can you write off the greatest player ever though in these situations?
17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer enters his 10th straight semi-final (or better) at Melbourne Park playing as well as ever, and having only a problem against the Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who always saves his best tennis for the Swiss. Benoit Paire, Nikolay Davydenko, home-favourite Bernard Tomic and Milos Raonic were all beaten in straight sets. Tomic and Raonic are two of the game’s biggest young prospects and Federer taught them a tough lesson by hammering them both out on Rod Laver Arena. The contest with Tomic had been hyped up by the media after the controversial Australian, when being asked about a potential third round clash with Roger, said “if he gets there”. But the match was played in great spirits, with Tomic really striking the ball with vigour. Federer’s movement and timing was in a different class though. Then came Canadian Raonic, with his colossal serve. It gave the Wimbledon champion problems early on but once he managed to read it more effectively, the game was wrapped up in not much time at all.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga twice fought back from a set behind to take his quarter final with Federer into a decider. The Swiss outlasted him, though, 6 games to 3 to book a date with Andy Murray for a place in the final. Federer’s serve has been extremely strong all week; he’s been racing through those service games so quickly. He effectively out-served Raonic because his may have been slower but the Canadian was unable to get Federer’s serve back a lot more. Plus, he didn’t have a single break point in the match. He’ll have to serve very well against Murray, who is unquestionably one of the top returners on the tour. Things are looking good for Roger; he could have been beaten by Tsonga in 5 sets like he was back at Wimbledon in 2011. Tsonga was playing excellent tennis both then and in that last contest. That perhaps shows he’s stronger now than in 2011; he’s got a great chance to win his 18th Grand Slam title.
Bidding to stop Federer and reach his third final in Melbourne is Briton and US Open champion Andy Murray. 2012 was definitely his best season to date as he reached the Wimbledon final, won Olympic gold in London and beat number one Novak Djokovic in America to lift his first ever Grand Slam title. So far this week, it’s evident that he’s looking to build strongly on that. He’s perfect in sets, winning 15 to 0, and has spent less time on the court than all the other semi-finalists. No doubt about it, he’s had a very favourable draw, but he’s comfortably rolled past all five players that have come up against him so far. In a potentially tricky opener, Robin Haase of the Netherlands was wiped off the court; Portugal’s Joao Sousa in similar fashion. A few minor issues came against Ricardas Berankis in the third round, who Murray is said to practice a lot with. Then, he breezed by exhausted Frenchman Gilles Simon and there was a comfortable last 8 victory over unseeded Jeremy Chardy, who was definitely a shock quarter finalist.
Murray is moving exceptionally well out there, putting down big timely serves, and stepping up and being aggressive. There’s a lot of fuss (particularly in the British media) that the Scot has not been tested sufficiently so won’t be ready for what’s coming at him on Friday. I think it’s abnormal to see such smooth progress by a Brit at a Grand Slam event. It’s like we need him to win some thrilling match to know that’s he playing well. He’s played Roger Federer many times before and knows how good he is. He knows that he’ll need to raise his game come Friday night. His target is to win another Slam and here in Australia on that hard court, which he so loves, is a fantastic opportunity.
It’s seeds two and three dueling on Rod Laver Arena for a final berth. Does either player have an edge or is it neck-and-neck? They both have the experience of these situations; both are able to produce strong serves on large points. Murray’s defensive and return game is better. Perhaps Federer’s mental strength is a point for him. Worldwide tennis fans hope it’s an absolute classic, because it has the potential and both these players deserve to be there. They don’t deserve to go out on a whimper in a predictable straight-setter.
So, the top 4 seeds have made it to their respective semi-final positions. They all have their strengths. It’s tough to find their weaknesses. Four will become three on Thursday, then two on Friday, as we get set for some unbelievably high-octane tennis at the stiflingly hot Melbourne Park at the first Grand Slam of the year in Australia.
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