The semifinals are set at the first Grand Slam of the tennis season. And if the Australian Open is the tone-setter for the rest of the season, we are in for one wild ride in 2014.
Gone is heavy favorite Novak Djokovic. Gone is 3-time finalist Andy Murray. And gone is one of my picks Juan Martin Del Potro who didn’t even make it to the first Friday!
But still standing are World No. 1 Rafael Nadal, the powerful Czech Tomas Berdych, the “Other Swiss” Stan Wawrinka and then “The Swiss” Roger Federer.
Before I get to the semifinals, a look back at yesterday.
I haven’t been a big believer in Grigor Dimitrov. Anyone who blatantly copies someone else’s game just isn’t going to go places. But yesterday even in defeat Dimitrov showed some remarkable talent. I may have to rethink his future.
At just 22 he’s already beaten Djokovic and he’s now taken a set off Nadal in all four of their meetings. Eventually he’s going to get the Spaniard. It’s coming.
Dimitrov has a sneaky-good serve, he’s quick, hits it well off both sides, has the cocky attitude, he’s got a ton of shots and he dates champions – Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. But he’ll need to get stronger and fitter to really compete. Luckily, those are two things that are well within his control because the rest is there.
As we saw yesterday, Rafa weathered the storm then just wore Dimitrov down both physically and mentally. Dimitrov, though, really gave Nadal a good fright and had he converted that forehand to go up two sets, then who knows.
Beating Nadal in best-of-5 in among the toughest things to do in the sport, just ask Roger Federer who’s done it just twice in 10 tries at the Grand Slam level.
Speaking of Federer, the Swiss continued the momentum off that mighty impressive JW Tsonga win with a excellent victory over Andy Murray. Federer started fast and after gagging at 5-4 in the third, he hung on for one of his better wins in recent memory, maybe even better than the Tsonga victory.
Murray didn’t look quite 100% while Federer was again flying around the court like it was 2006. The bigger racquet, the better back and the Stefan Edberg impact. Whatever it is it’s working and working really, really well.
That said, will it be enough to get by Rafa?
First to tonight’s affair.
Stan Wawrinka v Tomas Berdych
Both guys come into this one running hot. Wawrinka just won maybe the biggest match of his career the other night toppling 3-time Australian Open defending champion Novak Djokovic. Berdych similarly also had a good win ousting David Ferrer in four tough sets.
The question is which of 28-year-olds has the most left in the tank after spending so much? I think it’s Stan.
Sure, it was an emotional win for Wawrinka but at the end of the match against the iron man Djokovic he was still going strong. And he’s played those kind of matches before, and has obviously lost and now learned. The guy is built like a rock and now he appears to be mentally as tough as a rock.
Berdych did beat Ferrer but it looked like he was fading a little toward the end of the match. And with Tomas I just don’t know if he has the drive or the want to be a Grand Slam champion.
PLaying under Federer all these years, Stan has to want a piece of that success. He has to be in awe of what Federer’s accomplished. With Berdych, I don’t see that interest.
In their series, it’s been all Stan of late. He’s won three straight and six of their last seven. Tomas beat him at the Australian Open in 2009 but Stan is a far better player now, adding a heavy serve and a formidable forehand to go with that lethal backhand.
Tomas, however, is no slouch. He’s got the serve, the easy strokes and he’s had big wins. Yet against Stan for some reason he can’t get it done.
So with so much going the way of Wawrinka, I’ll go…
The pick: Wawrinka in four
Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal
The big one is Friday night as the two legends of the sport battle for a 33rd time. A week ago I would have labeled this meeting as a mismatch, well in favor of Nadal. But this week Federer’s shown glimpses of his vintage past, and that’s a good sign because against Rafa he’ll need everything he’s got.
Nadal leads this series 22-10. And he’s dominated in Grand Slams winning eight of 10 and on outdoor hardcourts he’s ahead of Roger 7-2. So all the numbers, all the strategy (Rafa’s heavy topsin to Roger’s backhand), even the surface all favor Nadal.
But the new version of Federer has been nothing short of sublime thus far. He’s been moving as well as he has in years, popping his serve and under Edberg he’s been far more aggressive than in the past.
And while Federer’s been blistering, Nadal’s been suffering from blisters. Rafa comes in with a serious hand blister that’s been doing a number of his serve. And against Federer (or any top player) he’ll need that weapon.
For Roger to win he’ll have to serve extremely well and handle that spin to the backhand. Like Murray, he’ll also have to to be wise as to his net approaches. And if the roof is closed due to rain, then all the better.
For Nadal, if the blisters allow him to play his punishing, physical brand of tennis that should be enough. But if he can’t serve to his maximum level it could spell trouble if Roger is playing well.
As much as I’d like to take Roger here – with so much going for him right now I give him a very real chance to win – it’s too hard to look past the head-to-head history. Even if Roger is back to 2006 levels, he wasn’t beating Nadal then either. So…
The pick: Nadal in four
ESPN will have coverage of both matches live at 3:30am ET for you night owls.
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