September 11, 2010

One to Go...

Do you realize how long it's been since Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have played in a Grand Slam final?

After battling each other for seven Major titles between 2006 and 2008, they've now gone nineteen months -- since Australia last year -- without another such meeting*. That's quite a stretch, and tennis fans around the world have been aching for at least one more showdown between the two best men currently playing this sport.

And they're just one match away from getting their wish.

Super Saturday at the U.S. Open found both men, somewhat surprisingly, in the semis, neither having dropped a set. Roger, the five-time champion, sailed through his early rounds and even made quick work of his developing nemesis Robin Soderling in the quarters. Nadal, who’d never made it past the final four in New York, had some scares to start, going to two tiebreaks against Teymuraz Gabashvili to start and battling through a stubborn Denis Istomin in the second round. But he found his footing in the second week, drubbing a tough Fernando Verdasco to make his third straight final Saturday.

For a spot in the finals, though, it was Rafa who had the easier draw. One of my favorites to win the title, Andy Murray, should have been his opponent today, but he was bested two rounds ago by Stanislas Wawrinka who was, in turn, bested by Mikhail Youzhny in a long five sets just on Thursday. Youzhny was the twelfth seed at the Open, but had advanced well under the radar to make his second Major semi. During his fortnight he displayed some hard-hitting strength and solid determination -- he ignored the American fans who rooted for John Isner in the third round, stopped a potential rally by Tommy Robredo in the Sweet Sixteen, and finally triumphed over Wawrinka in their four-hour quarter. But by the time he got to the semis he was out of steam -- though he put up the best fight he could, he couldn't quite get his bearings, and ultimately fell to the eight-time Slam winner in three sets, giving Nadal entry to his first ever U.S. Open final.

Though Mikhail is clearly an intimidating opponent -- he defeated Rafa in quarters here back in 2006 -- he's not quite the presence of world #3 Novak Djokovic, who Federer is playing now to set up that ultimate battle. Nole certainly surprised me the way he's been playing the last two weeks -- after near-elimination in the first round he's been unstoppable, downing a red-hot Mardy Fish in the fourth round and prevailing against showman Gael Monfils in the quarters. Nole has lost to Federer three straight years at the Open, but he did beat him three times last year and in the semis on his way to win the 2008 Australian Open title. He just evened the score against the Swiss giant by taking the second set, so you know that, unlike some of Roger's previous opponents at this tournament, Djokovic won't let himself get too down, and he's going to do his best to prevent that match everyone wants to see.

But if Roger does survive, the implications of the still-potential final are enormous. Never before have two men played the championship match at all four Majors, and whoever wins would have clear bragging rights. Rafa has already beaten Federer at three of the Slams and, should he win this one, he'd earn himself a career Grand Slam just a year after Roger did the same and become the youngest athlete to hold that honor. Of course, for Federer, there's the chance to get that elusive seventeenth Major title, just one fewer than Chris Evert and Martina Navritalova, and to do so against Rafa -- a man who's beaten him six of eight times on the grand stage -- makes the prospect even sweeter.

Meanwhile, we're also one match away from crowning the women's champion. That final pits two somewhat unlikely opponents against each other -- Kim Clijsters, looking to extend her win-streak at Flushing Meadows to twenty-one straight games, faces Vera Zvonareva, who at twenty-six years of age has reached her second consecutive Major title match after only once before making the semis. Clearly the Belgian is the favorite, having been on this stage five times before, but Vera did beat her in their last two meetings. If you want to talk about a stellar opportunity, this could be it.

* Of course, one of the other has played in every big final since then and, all but one time, has won the title.

1 comment:

Kavitha said...

Nope. Not this time. Novak Djokovic staged an amazing upset to deny Federer his first U.S. Open final since 2003. He'll play for the title after winning his match 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5.

Amazing effort by both players! Makes me proud to be a fan.