June 4, 2010

And Now For Something Sorta Different

It's kind of amazing, when you think about it. Of the eight men and women who made the semifinals at Roland Garros this year, only one had ever won a Major title before. And though it's clear we'll crown a first-time winner on the ladies' side, the same cannot be ruled out for the men. While one very familiar face remains among the final four gentlemen, the three others are playing at a level that could certainly cause some surprises.

Rafael Nadal, of course, has been the favorite for this championship since he began trouncing his opponents in Monte Carlo, where he won his first trophy in almost a year, and captured two more Masters titles since. He's won this tournament four times already and has amassed a brilliant 36-1 record at Roland Garros.

Rafa certainly has the motivation to bring home another prize -- reclaiming the crown that shot him to fame five years ago would not only get him back to #1 in the world, but it would put him among the illustrious company of John McEnroe, Mats Wilander and Bill Renshaw, all of whom have seven Slams on their mantles. Nadal has been playing like he wants the win, not droppinh a set yet in five matches, and with his long-time rival now out of contention, his chances have never looked better.

But there are a few men who'll be doing their best to derail the King of Clay's seemingly unstoppable train.

First up will be Jurgen Melzer, who has been on the pro Tour for eleven years. The twenty-nine year old Austrian has claimed a couple titles, most recently in Vienna last year, but had never won more than two matches at a Major before coming to Paris. When he beat David Ferrer, my pick to take his quarter, I wrote it off to exhaustion on his opponent's part. When he beat Teimuraz Gabashvili next, he proved he would not fold under the pressure of reaching the second week at a Slam. When he beat Novak Djokovic in the quarters, well then I sat up and started to take notice.

Melzer got off to a slow start against the world #3, and in about an hour found himself down two sets to love. But he hung onto a break in the third and fought through a tiebreak in the fourth to force a deciding set. The pair held serve early in the fifth and even seemed to raise their level of play when the stakes got higher, prompting the crowd to get that much more voluble in their cheers. Finally at four-all, Melzer was able to get the first break in almost three hours of play and after a controversial call went his way in the next game, he was the ultimate victor in the last men's quarterfinal. The win earned Jurgen his best result at any Major and a date with Rafa in the semis, and he could put up a bigger fight than we'd expect. He has, after all, proven he's capable of keeping up with the big guys.

So too has Tomas Berdych, the surprise finalist in Miami who beat Fernando Verdasco, Robin Soderling, and Roger Federer to get there. His demolition of Mikhail Youzhny on Tuesday earned him his own best Slam ever. The Czech has been even more impressive than that, though, with five straight set wins, including one over fourth-seeded Andy Murray two rounds back.

If you think Nadal and Melzer have been impressive this fortnight, consider that Berdych has only played one tiebreak and just lost serve six times. He's fired off forty-nine aces, better than any of the remaining men, and has had the fastest serve of the four this tournament. He has a decent record against Rafa too, should they meet in the finals -- three to seven, though none of those were on clay and the most recent was back in 2006. Even still, with wins over so many top ten players this year, it's got to be intimidating to see him in the finals.

He would have to get past Robin Soderling again, though. Last year's runner-up is clearly beatable, but you'd hardly know that if you'd watched him dismantle Roger Federer in the quarters, avenging the twelve previous losses he'd suffered at the hands of the current world #1. Though now staunchly in the top ten of the sport, he's hardly familiar with this environment -- he's playing in only his second Major semi, but ultimately aims to go one better than his 2009 performance. But he sure looks comfortable here.

So far in Roland Garros, Soderling has only dropped two sets and won well over seventy percent of his first serves. Rafa certainly won't be happy to meet him in the finals -- Robin is, after all, the only man who has beaten him on these courts. And though he still trails the Spaniard in their head-to-heads, a couple of breaks and he might be able to get under his skin.

Of course, we're still three long matches away from crowning a men's champion in Paris, and as the semis get underway in just a few hours there is certainly a hint of something old and something new. In my mind, Nadal is still the favorite to win the whole thing, but with some of the best play coming from some unlikely sources, there's also never been a better chance to see something you'd never have expected two weeks ago.

No comments: