Neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal will be playing in a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time since 2004. That’s a streak of 33 tournaments, yet another incredible stat showing their sustained dominance. But 2012 has been a year of a smidgen more parity among the men, led by the likes of Andy Murray — the man on the verge — and a series of vanquishers ranging from Tomas Berdych to David Ferrer. Yet for this U.S. Open, they still fall in line behind defending champion Novak Djokovic, who crept through the draw with nary a peep only to remind everyone on Thursday night against Juan Martin del Potro that he is the best hard-court player in the world.
Here’s a breakdown of Saturday’s men’s semifinals.
Andy Murray vs. Tomas Berdych: The punch line after Berdych’s quarterfinal upset of Federer was that somewhere in Manhattan Murray must have been banging his head against the wall. Murray actually leads the head-to-head against the world No. 1 and just beat him in a best-of-five match for the Olympic gold medal. But Murray is 2-4 against Berdych, who won their only previous Slam meeting, at the 2010 French Open. The big-hitting Czech, of course, has the game to beat anyone when he’s playing well. He’s defeated three of the top four players at a major, and he’s riding a high after knocking Federer out of a Slam for the second time in his career.
Does Berdych have it in him to back up his quarterfinal performance? Insinuate that the win over Federer was a big upset, and Berdych will look you in the eye and say it wasn’t. He even bristled when a reporter asked about the Czechs’ propensity for pulling off upsets, as evidenced by Lukas Rosol’s win over Nadal at Wimbledon and now Berdych’s over Federer. “I just hope you’re not comparing me with Lukas Rosol. Do you?” Berdych asked, challenging his questioner. The point is Berdych goes into his match with Murray believing he can keep this ride going — like he did when he made his only Slam final, at 2010 Wimbledon, where he pulled off back-to-back victories against Federer and Djokovic.
All this is to say Murray is not the runaway favorite and he will have to play extremely well to shake Berdych from his comfort zone. Murray’s toolkit is jam-packed with variety and power that can keep the ball out of Berdych’s hitting zone, and he’ll need to step in and be aggressive when he successfully prods for an opening. It’s a fine balance for Murray, who can drop into a defensive shell when he gets nervous, begging his opposition to try to hit through him. That’s a recipe for disaster if Berdych is hitting the ball as well as he was against Federer.
Murray has not played particularly well during the day, something to pay attention to with his match scheduled for 11 a.m. This is a tricky assignment for Murray, to say the least, but I like him to advance to his second U.S. Open final.
Prediction: Murray in four sets.
Novak Djokovic vs. David Ferrer: Which was the more impressive quarterfinal performance? Ferrer’s grind-it-out, four-and-a-half-hour victory against Janko Tipsarevic in which he rallied from a break down in the fifth set and prevailed in a decisive tiebreaker? Or Djokovic’s mind-blowing display of speed and hand-eye coordination in his straight-set win over Del Potro? Both efforts left me shaking my head and doing my best Denny Green impersonation: There are no surprises with Ferrer and Djokovic; they are exactly who you think they are. The workmanlike Ferrer’s relentless hustle comes up against Djokovic’s agility and machine-like precision. In the end, Djokovic does everything a little better than Ferrer and has no reason to feel pressure from the Spaniard.
Prediction: Djokovic in three sets.