We are down to the semifinals at the season’s first Tennis Masters event. Novak Djokovic leads another strong Final Four that features some, sort of, new faces. Rafael Nadal is back on the big stage after missing seven months of the season. The Spaniard will face first-time Indian Wells semifinalist Tomas Berdych in the early match. Meanwhile, two-time champion Djokovic has a date not with Andy Murray but with a different US Open champion, the surging Juan Martin Del Potro.
Three of the four have US Open titles and the fourth fella, Berdych, probably would have made the finals last fall had it not been for the wind.
On to the picks.
Rafael Nadal v. Tomas Berdych
Much like yesterday when I really wanted to pick Del Potro over Murray but didn’t, I really want to do the same here and pick the upset, unthinkably taking the mentally challenged Berdych to beat the unwavering Rafa.
No one is playing better this week than Berdych. The Czech hasn’t dropped a set or really been pressed at all. And he’s coming off consecutive finals in Marseille and Dubai.
Nadal is rounding into form. He blew out an ailing Federer Thursday night but looked good doing it. So he gets credit for that and I’m sure it didn’t hurt his confidence any. If there was any fatigue from consecutive wins over Gulbis then Roger, the day off should have helped. And he owns Berdych winning 11 straight and 12 of 15 overall. That’s domination. But Rafa has his antennae up.
“He’s playing better and better every year,” Nadal said of the Czech. “He played final in Marseilles, final in Dubai, and now he’s semifinals here without losing a set. He’s doing great. We’ll see. I gonna try my best. I gonna try to keep playing well and try to fight as I did today, as I did yesterday, and we’ll see if I am able to compete well and enjoy another match. Every match is fantastic for me to have the chance to keep playing, and I gonna enjoy the match against another top, top player. Will be another important test for me, and I gonna enjoy.”
Nadal is also a two-time winner in the desert. He likes the courts – the slow surface really really takes to Nadal’s spin, especially under the sun – and he’s experienced in this round having now reached the semifinals for an eighth straight year.
With all that going for Nadal, would I really be crazy enough to pick Berdych here?
The thing with Tomas is he should match up well with Nadal. He’s got the height, hits it flat and can handle the high, heavy spin to his backhand. He’s slow, true, but he’s got that power, easy power they say, off the serve, both wings. Hell, he even hits volleys hard. The problem for Tomas is between the ears. And that’s what’s held him back.
But lately he’s started to make some inroads with multiple wins on big stages over Federer, and he’s played Novak Djokovic tough on a few occasions already this year in losses.
“I think I’m getting closer, but those guys are still running away,” Berdych said of the players ahead of him. “Hopefully one day I can sit and say, Yeah, all that hard work has been, you know, paying off, you know, that I was able to move, even improve the ranking or make a really big results, Grand Slam or some other, and so that’s my actually key and motivation.”
Frankly, Berdych arguably is playing the best tennis of career. And now he’s playing a guy who is still not at his best. Someone who’s still fighting his body, maybe unsure of his footing. And someone who may be content with reaching the semifinals – part of me wonders if Nadal really wants to play Djokovic in another grueling final that could undo all the recovery he’s done to his knees.
Berdych will be in the match. It’s just a question if his head will be when the moment counts. I think it will. Call it March Madness.
The pick: Berdych in three (Golden Rule: Never ever pick Berdych to beat Nadal. Never! It’s just bad business.)
Novak Djokovic v Juan Martin Del Potro
First, JW Tsonga didn’t show up today against Novak. Be it the knee or the head or both, Tsonga was no factor at all this afternoon in a disappointing effort against the World No. 1. But it’s doesn’t matter, Novak will take it as the Serb has now run his win streak to 22. Next, though, is the mighty Del Potro who looked really good today in a three setter over Murray.
Murray played his defense, mixed in with some offense but I was really impressed by how well Delpo stayed in the rallies and waited out Andy who never found this top form this week. Several times Delpo got the better of Murray in backhand-to-backhand exchanges, and with his sneaky speed he was just as good on defense as Murray was. For Delpo, that was one of his best wins in a while I think. And I hope it’s a launching pad to bigger titles down the road. I just don’t think it continues this weekend. Not at Novak’s expense.
Djokovic has won eight of 10 against the Argentine winning the last four all on hardcourt during the second half of last year and this season at Dubai.
“Del Potro is a powerful hitter from the back of the court, big serve,” said Djokovic who did lose to Delpo at the Olympics in a lackluster bronze match. “He moves really well for his height. US Open champion, so he knows how to play on the big stage.”
Delpo, though, is playing the more confident, better tennis of the two. The win over Murray was tough and played in the heat, so if it’s hot again tomorrow might there be some weariness? I don’t know.
But like I said yesterday, until someone beats Novak on hardcourts, you really can’t pick against him even if Delpo has the new Pope on his side. Novak’s fit, he’s hungry and he knows this is his time. He’s the King of Hardcourts.
The pick: Djokovic in three
ESPN2 has coverage of both semifinals starting at 3pm ET. The women’s final will be played on Sunday before the men’s final.
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