The first semi-final started at 10 p.m. At 2 a.m., when Roger's match was scheduled to start, it was deuce, 6-5 to Djoke on Nadal's serve in the deciding set. Nadal held and pushed it into a third-set tie-break...and that breaker was one of the most intense and dramatic tie-breaks I'd ever watched in my short career of watching tennis. Nole had three match points in that tie-break, one on his serve - but he couldn't convert. I was so nail-bitingly nervous I actually felt sick, the way I felt sick watching this year's Australian Open final, which is insane because I hardly ever get nervous watching a non-Roger match.
All credit to Nadal. From what I watched, and from the crazy scoreline (3-6, 7-6, 7-6), both would have deserved the win, but perhaps Nadal deserved it a bit more for working overtime to erase Nole's match points and convert his own second match point, and the most fantastic thing about it is that, for the first time, I can't be justified in calling Nadal a mindless ball-basher anymore. He displayed amazing shot-making on those two match points (the third he erased with a service winner), erasing them both with clear, lethal winners that Djoke had no choice but to accept as Too Good and move on. I have immense dislike for Nadal, as everyone knows, and I find his tennis utterly uncompelling and boring; but the way he played on those first two match points was....yes, it was admirable. He deserved the win.
Djoke would've deserved it, too. He responded beautifully to Nadal's first match point, setting up the winner with a drop-shot which I was shocked he'd try considering he misses one out of two drop-shots on an optimistic estimate and snuffing out Nadal's match point with a fantastic backhand (I think; can't remember) pass. The difference between these two players, and the reason I like Novak Djokovic despite his annoying arrogant antics, is because Djoke plays tennis that can loosely be described as "beautiful". He's a naturally talented tennis player (as opposed to Nadal and Murray, and Simon, who are gifted athletes but not so much tennis players) and it shows in his instinct for shot-selection and the choices that he makes. That drop-shot on Nadal's match point was GUTSY as hell. And my personal preference is for players who have the balls (no pun intended) to play shots like that, to have that immense confidence and belief in himself to play a low-percentage shot (because, sorry, it's Novak Djokovic playing the drop-shot and his failed drop-shots are more memorable than his successful ones) on the biggest point of the match, to be able to out-think his opponent and lure him to exactly where he wants him to go. I've flip-flopped over Djokovic for the longest time; and the reason I've finally decided that, yes, I like this Novak Djokovic kid is because he plays brilliant tennis.
For me, tennis is as much a mental sport as it is a physical one. It's like chess - it requires you to think and out-think and out-manouvre your opponent. You don't step onto the court sticking to one game plan, and you don't keep with that game plan when it's obviously failing you (see: Blake, James against Federer, Roger at the third round of the Madrid Masters. His plan of attacking Roger's serves - even his first serve - wasn't working and he still kept at it the whole match). You may possess the most powerful forehand ever, but you need to be nuanced enough to know when to dial it back, when to go for the winner. The lack of intelligent playing in hard-hitting players like Tomas Berdych is why they're never going to win against the top guys; and the top guys get where they are because they are extremely intelligent on the court. Roger is a great example of this - he knows the adjustments he has to make, in the middle of the match, and if you've watched enough tennis, you can see the subtle changes he makes to his game to adjust to his opponent's level of play. His inside-out forehand was letting him down at the start of the Roddick match - no problem, he shelved that shot and went for backhand winners, or more defensive play waiting for Roddick to make the errors. Players who can play at the apex of professional tennis don't stubbornly stick to a failing game plan; they pull out Plan B, Plan C, and turn things around.
Of course, when you're throwing everything you have at your opponent and he's still refusing to budge, it takes a great player not to meltdown mentally and hold it together long enough to out-think his opponent. This is my impression of Nole's drop-shot on Nadal's first match point. He threw everything he had at Nadal, hitting every ball back, going for winners just to see them coming back at him, and facing match point after losing two of his own would cause a lesser player to shrivel up and die. I must admit I didn't think he had the mental fortitude to hang in there and erase Nadal's match point - but he did. And he did it in such a beautifully breath-taking fashion, I don't think I'd ever wonder why I like this guy the next time he does something arrogant to annoy me (the chest-thumping REALLY has to stop). It was the first drop-shot he played in the entire breaker and I don't think Nadal really expected it. But because he's Nadal, he made a great scramble to hit it back, but Djoke had the net covered.
To be honest, I cannot remember how Nadal won the match. I can't even remember if his last match point was on his serve or Djoke's. All I can remember is Nadal's powerful and lethal and ruthless forehand down-the-line winner on Djoke's first match point, and Djoke's gutsy and gorgeous drop-shot on Nadal's first match point. I don't wish I'd watched the whole match; it would probably have annoyed me for many reasons. But I'm glad I got to watch the breaker because it was absolutely wonderfully played.
This is the first time I truly think Nadal deserves to be in a final. He worked his ass off for the victory and he deserves to have a shot at winning yet another Masters title. He works his ass off all the time, but it makes a huge difference to me whether you're working to hit the winner or working to wait for your opponent to make the error. And Nadal, for the first time, showed himself to be something a little bit more than a ball-bashing ball-pusher to me - and just for that, I wouldn't bitch too much about yet another freaking "Dream Final" between Nadal and my Roger which is more a nightmare final to me and other Fedtards.
In the wake of the epic Nadal/Djokovic semi, the next semi between Roger and Del Potro was awfully anti-climatic. But that was to be expected: Despite his wins over Nadal in Miami and Murray the previous round, Del Potro was never a match for Roger. He cannot handle Roger's slices, he cannot handle Roger's drop-shots, he cannot handle Roger Federer.
I feel sorry for Del Potro every time he has to play The Federer. He's ranked #5 in the world, and time and again Roger makes him look like some #100-something mug. If he could beat Nadal and Murray, he must be at least good at what he does; but Roger just makes him look so ordinary and mediocre. I watched a bit of his Miami win over Nadal and I think the reason he matches up well with Nadal and Murray, or at least the reason he can beat them, is because his backhand is his strongest shot, and thus he can 1) absorb, or at least handle, Nadal's extreme topspin forehand to his backhand; and 2) give Murray a run for his money in their Battle of the Backhand. Murray's favourite shot is also his backhand, and his tried-and-tested-and-successful tactic in beating Roger is to constantly attack his backhand until it breaks down. And because Murray hits from his strongest shot to Roger's weakest, he can keep exerting the pressure until Roger shanks his backhand - which is something he can't do with Del Potro.
More importantly, the reason Roger is a nightmare for Del Potro is because of the complete, all-court player that Roger is. He may prefer dominating from the baseline, he may not be a natural volleyer (right, sorry Roger, I don't believe that), but he can play from all corners of the court the way Nadal and Murray can't. Nadal's strong suit is in his utter dominance from the baseline, his crazy Vamos Topspin forehand, and while he's improved in his net play, when he gets tight he tends to revert to his old ways of baselining mindlessly hoping his opponent makes an error. Roger, though, can play whatever he wants, however he wants. The shots that troubled Del Potro this morning weren't the low backhand slices that Del Potro couldn't return in Australia; he started off hitting these incredible drop shots that Del Potro couldn't properly return because of his imposing height and how long it takes for him to get to the net from the baseline, and because Roger took so much time away from him, he himself had all the time in the world to hit that winning passing shot. It happened over and over, and 9 out of 10 times Roger hit a drop shot, he won the point.
Of course, when I say 'over and over', I don't mean he kept using the shot. Roger mixed it up beautifully, even opting for the topspin backhand and not the slice just to keep Del Potro on his toes. He didn't even use the slice so much in this match and he must've known how deadly it was in his match with DP in Australia. So, while this semi didn't have the high dramatic factor that the previous one did, I still would watch Roger Federer, the Master, at work dismantling his subpar opponent over the kind of high-octane tennis that Nadal/Djokovic played, anytime, anyday. Because when Roger's on like this, he shows you why tennis is such a beautiful beautiful sport. Because no one's shot-making can even come close to Roger's for me. Because he has this amazing knack and innate instinct for the angles on the court and for shot-selection that even when he's making errors, you know the shot he's going for and it's just...mind-boggling, even breath-taking (more so when he makes the shot, of course).
If I can detach myself emotionally from him, I'd be quite excited to see how he responds to Nadal in the final today. I wonder how he's going to change his game enough to have a winning answer to Nadal's predominantly defensive game.
But because I cannot detach myself emotionally from the outcome, I'm absolutely dreading this match. I hate to be pessimistic but I just don't think he's going to win. I hope like mad he does, but...I'm not expecting him to.
Sigh. I will watch the match anyhow, even if it makes me sick.