Thursday, January 26, 2012

Alas, Poor Roger

As of 7:30am, we have at least one of the finalists for Sunday's Australian Open championship round, and his name is Rafael Nadal. (And in my opinion, his opponent is guaranteed to be Djokovic.)

Extending his career record over Federer to stunning 18-9, this modern legend of a rivalry has become painfully one-sided. As several commentators pointed out this morning, playing Roger brings out the best in Nadal, but for some unknown reason has the opposite effect on Federer.

Roger came out strong and sharp, looking every bit the man we've known to be the best in the sport for a decade, slipping a bit to lose the lead, but performing brilliantly in the tiebreak to take the first set. The second set was a different story, with unforced errors piling up all over the place and Nadal breaking easily and often for a big lead. Throw in the delay in game for Melbourne's traditional Australian Day fireworks (yes, they interrupted semis to celebrate when the convicts showed up) and you have a distracted, out of rhythm, sub-par Federer.

The third and fourth sets showed him putting up more of a fight, but whenever he earned any openings to break or increase his level, he instead stayed passive or made the entirely wrong strategic decision. Specifically in the fourth and final set, with a break point at 4-3 and multiple break points again at 4-5, he never managed to elevate his game in a consistent enough manner to really hurt Nadal.

All credit to Rafa, naturally, for being the consummate competitor. Neither of these two great athletes were at the top of their form today, and Rafa had his share of errors and sporadic tightness and timidity. But he managed the match far better, executing a couple brilliant shots to swing the momentum in his favor, and simply keeping the point alive when Roger was self-destructing.

In the end, it was rather a frustrating match to watch. Knowing what Roger Federer is capable of, remembering all the times we've seen him step-up and find that higher gear, that belief in himself, it's a dispiriting sensation to watch him fail again after a couple years of the same results.

However, I am absolutely certain of one thing. That player we all remember and wish had shown up today; he's still in there. I am positive that Roger is capable of Nadal, and even Djokovic. There are just a few intangibles he needs to dig deep for, and it is entirely essential that he doesn't let another defeat to Nadal make him doubt himself. He has the entire year ahead of him, and 2012 could be real good to Roger.

As for Nadal, it will be very interesting to see him try to break his equally-stunning losing streak to Djokovic in the finals on Sunday. (No, I do not even consider the possibility that whiny-rat-Murray may beat Novak, with or without his new Ivan Lendl coach. Mark my words, Lendl will be gone by the French and Murray will still be #4 without a Slam.) If he plays the way he did today, I don't think he has a chance.

But if he does that Champion thing, where he finds a way to play better tennis than he ever has before in moments of great pressure? Well, then we've got ourselves a beautiful Final round.

Djokovic v. Murray Semifinal is on ESPN2, Friday at 330am ET.
Djokovic v. Nadal Semifinal is on ESPN2, Sunday at 330am ET.

(And yes, even though Murray has no chance, I'm probably gonna stay up all night again just to watch Nole beat him black & blue.)

Lastly, a couple notes to the people who organize and run the Australian Open:
      1.) Don't sanction fighter jet formation flyovers that last 20minutes during semifinal matches, even if it's the women's draw.
     2.) Stop airing every big match of the tournament at primetime.
     3.) For God's sake, do not give a microphone to Jim Courier.

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