The quarterfinals have been played and we are now at the “make or break” moment for the US Open: the semi-finals. It may seem as though I have taken the easy way out by picking the top 4 seeds, but this is how I see the draws coming to their conclusion. Regardless of seed, how well each of these top guys handle their semi-finals will determine EVERYTHING about who will take the title the next day in the final!
Much of how the semi-finals will play out will be determined by the mental side of the game. As I remind my partner, tennis matches between these four guys is won between the ears. When they look across the net do they feel they can beat the other guy on this day, or do they look across the net and try to show no fear? There are, of course, many more questions and nuances to this mental game. It depends on the two foes in question. Let’s start with the number one seed versus the number 3 seed: Novak versus Roger.
Novak Djokovic / Roger Federer
I pride myself on the few times that I’m actually correct in my tennis prognosticating! At the French Open, I had a feeling that Roger would beat Novak. He was feeling overlooked and a bit irrelevant, and it bugged him. Novak was feeling the pressure as well. With a win over Roger he would have taken over the number one spot from Rafa, followed by a chance to beat Rafa in the final for a sixth consecutive final win this season over the Spaniard. There was something to that particular semi-final, however, because it was on clay. Clay rewards technique and creativity. Roger had both. Novak was no slouch going into the match, but I knew that if anyone had the tools to make Novak uncomfortable and come away with the win, it was Roger. And so it came to pass.
The US Open is different because of the hard court surface. Creativity isn’t rewarded as much as pure hitting. Novak is about as pure of a hitter as you will find on the tour right now. Though Roger has been referred to as the “Greatest of All Time” by most tennis writers, he is clearly a player on the decline side of his playing arc. The brilliance that we took for granted is not always evident. For that matter, his forehand is sometimes nowhere to be seen. He was beaten by Rafa 6-3 6-2 in their Miami semi-final because his forehand just wouldn’t clear the net. Or if it did, it sailed well beyond the baseline. It was an ugly affair that deflated an entire stadium that was set for another brilliant chapter in the Roger v. Rafa rivalry.
If that Roger, the Roger with no forehand that is, shows up to play Novak in their US Open semi-final, he will lose in straights…no question. If the Roger Federer from the French Open shows up, this could be a match. Last year’s semi-final was epic! Novak fought off match points to come back and win in a brilliant encounter of hard-hitting fearless tennis. I don’t think this match will be quite as epic because Federer isn’t playing as well and Novak is playing a little tired from all the matches he has won this year. Both are vulnerable in a way. Whoever shows up as the sharper opponent on the night will come away the winner. I think that will be Roger. He has the most to prove in what has been a forgettable year (in terms of grand slam performances). Novak has less to prove, so the motivation level isn’t as high or as desperate. He will battle as well as he always does, and Roger will have to earn the win. But in the end I think he will.
Roger in 4 (or 5) sets
Andy Murray / Rafael Nadal
Many have said that this is Andy Murray’s best chance to win a grand slam this year. He is playing well, and the top 3 are either playing with low confidence or with injuries. Rafa falls into the low confidence category. The losses he has had to Novak have really done a number on him. You can clearly see the doubt in his eyes, the questions of “What do I need in order to beat this guy?”. And as you answer the question to defeat one player, you take your eye off of the other players wanting to beat you as well. So he comes into this US Open mentally battered, and physically a little battered with the linger foot issues and burned fingers (thanks Cincinnati!). But in this game of match-ups, Rafa looks across the net – sees Andy Murray – and knows deep in his heart that even though Andy is a great player, he will beat him. Rafa has the mental edge over Andy. It held true to form at the French as well as at Wimbledon. I expect the same for the US Open. I will give Andy an additional set because of Rafa’s newfound penchant for spraying his forehand. In the end, I believe he will still come away as the victor in this match.
Rafa in 4 (or 5) sets
Roger Federer / Rafael Nadal
This match-up is NEVER good for Roger. At this stage in their careers there are no surprises, and an awful lot of known quantity. Roger is going to attack Rafa’s backhand and try to take the net away from him as much as possible to apply pressure, especially now that Rafa seems more susceptible to being pressured on the court. Rafa, on the other side, is going to make Roger hit “one million” high backhands during the course of the match. Okay maybe that is an exaggeration, but not my much. Roger can hang in that battle for awhile, but the end result is going to be the same as it has always been: Rafa will win those points at least 70% of the time. And if Rafa’s forehand is finding its’ mark and landing deep with his normal spin, Roger will find himself in the type of tennis assault that he has hated for as many years as Rafa has been around to torment him.
If Novak beats Roger it’s a different animal. He has had Rafa’s number all year and a match between them would have been more of the same. Also, Rafa looks at Novak and knows that Novak wants to beat him again AND knows how to beat him. Rafa looks at Roger and sees another US Open title! Scheduling could also play a big factor in this match. If Rafa plays the early match and Roger plays the late match on Saturday, Rafa will have the edge. If the matches are reversed it wouldn’t have the same effect on Rafa. So in order for Roger to beat Rafa in the US Open final, a lot of things will need to swing his way. And that’s just not going to happen. Good for him to get to the finals, but Rafa will win this one.
Rafa in 4 sets for the title.
Am I betting man with these predictions? I’ll just use three words in my defense: ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN!