Intrepid Naturalists

Rome Masters, Semifinals

(1) Djokovic d. (3) Federer, 6/2 7/6

Until he stepped up to serve for tonight’s second semifinal at the Rome Masters, Novak Djokovic had dropped just one point on his first serve. It was an impressive stat – worthy of Milos Raonic – for all that the top seed wasn’t landing enough first serves to make it overwhelming. The score was 5/4, in the second set. Match point arrived, and a rally ensued. Federer saved it with a mighty forehand winner onto the line. You may vaguely recall something similar happening when these two last played, in 2011’s US Open semifinals, but reversed. The symmetry was almost too perfect, and surely wasn’t lost on Djokovic, especially when Federer then broke to level the set on his first break point of the match.

Although beset by his own service woes, Federer then served out the following game at love, from the end at which he’d already dropped serve three times. Suddenly, he was winning the long rallies. In every sense, momentum had shifted, and for a mind like Djokovic’s, always curiously alert to such things, that forehand on the line to save match point must have lent the turning tide the inexorability of fate. It is to Djokovic enormous credit that he was not thus reduced to mere fatalism, the way he used to be in his long apprenticeship as world No.3.

He attained the tiebreaker, narrowly denying Federer a set point. From that moment on, Djokovic demonstrated why he is no longer the world No.3. The precedent for this match turned out not to be that famous US Open semifinal, but those littering Djokovic’s path to the Miami title last month. In both the quarterfinals and semifinals at Key Biscayne, the Serb had been impeccable for the opening set, and then fought through a tougher second, before gaining the vital break. On both occasions, he was broken while serving for it, but took the subsequent tiebreaker comfortably. That being said, those matches had been against Juan Monaco and David Ferrer, who despite being very fine players, are not Federer. Djokovic’s exultant roar upon winning the match was a testament to this. He really hadn’t wanted this going to a third.

It would be misleading to pretend that it was a close match, though. Federer later confessed to some fatigue after playing nine matches in the last eleven days, even as he studiously balanced this out by insisting that Djokovic had been too solid anyway. The attendant media maintain a delicately calibrated set of scales at these press conferences, and can be relied upon to trumpet any comments that shift the balance away from lavishly praising one’s opponent. Certainly the numbers bear out Federer’s assessment. He committed 42 unforced errors – which is rather a lot for two sets, and over twice as many as his opponent – and served below 50%, which is virtually unheard of for him. Numbers like that were never going to get it done.

On the subject of interesting numbers, this match was a very rare example of a semifinal between the two top-ranked players in the world, which in tournament play can only happen if the rankings change after the seedings are announced, as happened last week. A curiosity.

(2) Nadal d. (6) Ferrer, 7/6 6/0

Earlier, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer tramped along a worn if narrow path, on which the smaller Spaniard demonstrated characteristic discipline by never venturing more than a single step ahead of his more favoured compatriot. They’re like a pair of intrepid amateur naturalists who’ve stumbled upon a hidden ravine, within which is contained an entirely new ecosystem of putatively limitless diversity. Hardly believing their own luck, they establish camp, and meticulously catalogue their discoveries, before submitting each to Royal Societies and learned science journals the world over. Apparently no one has the heart to tell them they’ve been sending in the same tree frog over and over again for some time, and could they please stop.

In other words, there are only so many times Ferrer can fail to capitalise on a lead from Nadal before the fans groan, and decide they’ve seen it all before. Indeed, we saw it all before only three weeks ago, in the Barcelona final. I suppose it was awfully thoughtful of Nadal and (especially) Ferrer to restage that match for those few Luddites incapable of locating any highlights for themselves, and who were indisposed when it was originally played, perhaps because they were erecting a barn. For the rest of us, it was all wearyingly familiar.

It was soon after Nadal had claimed the first set tiebreak that it occurred to him that the frog he’d been painstakingly preparing for postage looked uncannily similar to earlier versions. He peered closely. If there were variations here, they were sufficiently subtle as to defy taxonomy. Suddenly coming to his senses, Nadal packed up his gear and made to break camp, but not before marching over to Ferrer’s side of the camp and smashing it up; slicing apart his hammock, emptying his pack in the creek, and filling his sleeping bag with hundreds of disappointingly identical tree frogs. Forlorn amidst the shambles of his gear, Ferrer could no longer hope to keep up. Nadal was home and fed before his poor countryman had even dried his underwear. This is a metaphor.

As a match, it demonstrated that form is an ephemeral thing, even for Nadal on red, low-altitude clay. He was frightening good against Tomas Berdych in yesterday’s quarterfinal, committing only 10 unforced errors while hardly holding back. Today he produced 20 in the first set alone, and most of these were off the backhand. Ferrer has learned from long experience that this is the wing to break down. We can qualify this by pointing out that it had seemed pretty obvious that this was the optimum tactic almost immediately after Nadal appeared on the tour a decade ago, although this isn’t to say that everyone has gotten the message. Berdych still approached at the forehand yesterday, as did Federer in Melbourne, although he appears to have learned the lesson since. Stretching Nadal to the backhand wing opens up his forehand corner, which enables the enterprising right-hander to go inside-out into the gap, or, if you’re Djokovic, smack a crosscourt backhand. As an exercise in geometry, it hardly exceeds Euclid, and I don’t mean to imply it is a schematic for certain victory. You don’t win 47 French Opens without a capable backhand, after all, and the ability to defend off either side. But it gives guys like Ferrer a fighting chance. Why then does he abandon it when he builds a lead? The ability to stick with a winning plan is ironically among the rarest in the sport, assuming your game boasts any variety at all.

Leading 3-1 in the tiebreak, Ferrer opted for a drop shot when he should have pressed the advantage. It didn’t come off. In the second set, it no longer mattered. Ferrer was by now pre-occupied with fishing his unmentionables out of the creek. Nadal, gambolling homeward along the track, barely put another foot wrong. He made just six unforced errors in the second set. Although this wasn’t paired with any special aggression, the way it had been yesterday, it was still sufficient to earn a bagel, which he tucked into when he got home.

Tomorrow Nadal will face Djokovic in a replay of last year’s final, a match rich in portent and possibility. For all that the Spaniard defeated Djokovic in Monte Carlo – and acknowledging that I am disinclined to over-qualify any result – there is no sense in denying that Djokovic was hardly at his best in that match. He was not the same world No.1 that had defeated Nadal in seven consecutive finals, or even that saw off Federer tonight. Nadal would have known that, and tempering his delight at claiming the title would have been the uneasy presence of an absence, as when Darth Vader struck down Obi-Wan Kenobi’s empty robe. Defeating Djokovic in tomorrow’s final will go some way towards redressing that, ensuring that this time, after the kill, there’s a corpse.

For Djokovic, defending his title is probably motivation sufficient unto itself, especially since it would reassure everyone that the world No.1 remains the world’s best player. Beyond that, it will provide valuable momentum for Roland Garros, given that he more or less destined to face Nadal there. Precisely when he would face Nadal in Paris is another issue. If Djokovic wins tomorrow’s final, Nadal will remain adrift of Federer at No.3, and will therefore be seeded third at the French Open. This opens up the possibility of drawing Djokovic in the semifinals – a 50% possibility, to be precise, stolidly ignoring the guttural bellows of those who insist the draws are rigged anyway. This means that Federer wouldn’t have to fight through either of them on the way to the final, and that his opponent in the final would have won a potentially Pyrrhic victory the round before. It’s a long way off, but nearer than you’d think.

There is a great deal to play for, even for those who aren’t playing.

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