Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Australian Open 2014 Mens Semifinals Preview

It seems almost sacrilegious to write a grand slam semifinals preview without assessing Novak Djokovic’s chances, but that is what tennis writers have to do for the 2014 Australian Open as the Serb has failed to make it past the quarterfinals for the first time in 15 attempts. Djokovic’s absence will be offset by the return of the greatest rivalry in mens tennis, as Rafael Nadal takes on Roger Federer in a grand slam for the first time in two years. Meanwhile Tomas Berdych and Stanislas Wawrinka won’t mind flying under the radar as they battle it out in the other semifinal.

Tomas Berdych (7) vs. Stanislas Wawrinka (8)

I predicted Berdych would lose to David Ferrer in the quarterfinals, but the Czech managed to maintain his consistency from the baseline while relentlessly pounding forehand winners on his way to a four set victory. Its taken a long time for the seventh seed to reach his first semifinal in Australia, but its evident that the faster conditions this year have been to Berdych’s liking. Outside the fab four in men’s tennis, Berdych could arguably be considered the next best player on fast courts. After rolling through without breaking a sweat in the first four rounds, the win over Ferrer — against whom he had a losing record — will be a massive psychological boost for Berdych going into the semifinals.

After endearing himself to the Australian fans after an epic five set loss to Djokovic in the round of 16 last year, Stan the Man has firmly entrenched himself as a crowd favourite after defeating the defending champion in another colossal five set battle in the quarterfinals. Wawrinka hit 51 winners in an exhibition of shotmaking, but of greater emphasis was his ability to recover after losing the first set 6-2, and then coming back from a break down to win in the deciding set. Despite being one of the shortest men on tour, Wawrinka has always been more than a match against his big hitting opponents, but over the past year he has also developed the focus and mentality required to win crucial matches under the tutelage of Magnus Norman.

Wawrinka leads the head-to-head 8-5, crucially winning three out of four last year including a four set victory in the round of 16 at the US Open. That being said, the margins of victory have been very thin, and the key differentiator between the two is Wawrinka’s greater variety which has enabled him to get Berdych out of his comfort zone. Despite Berdych having the bigger game, I believe Wawrinka has a more varied assortment of shots and tactics that can unsettle Berdych. I am tempted to label Wawrinka the favourite, but one also has to consider the fact that Berdych has spent less time on court compared to the Swiss. When compared to the other semi, this matchup might seem like the ugly step sister, but I believe we are in for a delightful match that could easily go the distance pending Wawrinka’s fitness.

Rafael Nadal (1) vs. Roger Federer (6)

There isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been said about this great rivalry. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer meet at the same stage as their last grand slam meeting in 2012, when the world no.1 won in four sets of high quality tennis. The duo came through their toughest tests so far in winning their quarterfinals, with Federer securing the more convincing victory of the two. Now that’s not a sentence I thought I would be typing at the beginning of the tournament.

Federer had already shown signs of improvement and renewed focus in his serene progress through the draw including the straight sets victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Remarkably Federer managed to raise his game another level for the first two and a half sets against Andy Murray, playing a brand of aggressive tennis that was simply unbeatable. The Swiss maestro didn’t hesitate to finish points with volleys, winning 75% of the time he was at net. Furthermore, Federer also dominated on serve, winning 78% of first serve points. If there is one area of concern in the Federer camp, it’s the mental fragility in pressure situations. Seemingly on the brink of a routine straight sets victory, Federer threw away a service game at 5-4 in the third set, and then wasted two match points at 6-4 in the tie-break with some ugly shots. To compound matters the old Federer bugbear made an unwelcome return in the fourth set, when the sixth seed needed 11 break points before getting the decisive break to finish the match. Nevertheless, after all the doubts heading into the new year, to win two successive matches in the business end of the tournament against opponents who dealt him big defeats last year and that too by playing sublime tennis, sparks a major upturn in Federer’s fortunes after last year’s troubles.

In the other corner is the world no.1, who is also possibly the toughest man to beat across any individual sport in the world right now. Rafael Nadal simply doesn’t know when he is beaten, as evidenced in his wins against Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov. Ostensibly outplayed by both opponents, Nadal simply found a way to win, crucially increasing his level of play on the decisive points. In the quarterfinals against Dimitrov (The Bulgarian who has modelled his game on Federer), Nadal only got into his groove in the fourth set, barely hanging on during the onslaught of his opponent’s array of winners, but crucially managing to win two tie-breaks to take the lead in conditions that were not ideally suited to him.

It is this will to win that hands Nadal the decisive edge against Federer. Theoretically the faster conditions seen in Australia this year should suit Federer, but he is unlikely to have such a high success rate at net against Nadal’s almost inhuman speed and precise passing shots. If Federer is to have any chance he will have to maintain consistency on the first serve, because it's highly unlikely that Nadal will lose many long rallies. I am expecting Federer to play some inspired attacking tennis again, though I am skeptical about his chances of winning. Nadal clearly has the upper hand due to the head-to-head advantage he has over Federer, and while the former world no.1 will probably win a set, I think the current world no.1 will prevail due to his superior mental strength in addition to his ability to adjust tactics in the midst of a tough match.
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