Saturday, September 8, 2007

Djokovic takes on Federer

For one simple reason, revenge is not an emotion that particularly spurs Roger Federer – he doesn’t feel the need to attain it too often. Today may be different as he faces Novak Djokovic, who beat him less than a month ago. If Federer needs any added incentive as he walks on court at the Arthur Ashe stadium it will come with the knowledge that victory will give him his 12th Grand Slam title and leave him just two behind Pete Sampras, but his mind is bound to flash back to the moment in Montreal when Djokovic celebrated a momentous win.

Three previous US Open finals when he ultimately exerted total dominance against Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick would suggest Federer will get his own back against the 20-year-old challenger, who is bidding to become Serbia’s first Grand Slam champion and will be the youngest men’s finalist at Flushing Meadows since Sampras took this title as a teenager in 1990.

Yet even though Federer won through to today’s confrontation by exacting a 7-5 6-1 7-5 win over fourth seed Nikolay Davydenko there were aspects of his game hardly befitting of a player often revered as the greatest of all time. And as he tried to banish the memory of dropping his serve three times in succession, the Swiss speculated on his feelings just before facing Djokovic and admitted: “I will be tense and nervous because Novak is playing fantastic tennis. It’s going to be exciting because it’s a meeting of the two best players of the summer.”

As ever at the only event where, regardless of whatever the weather may dictate, the contestants are expected to play the two most important matches of the fortnight on consecutive days, fitness and durability will be a factor as much as skill. And Djokovic, similarly a straight sets semi-final winner over Spaniard David Ferrer, will be yearning of final confirmation that he can dispense of the stigma that previously suggested a physical incapacity to endure the rigours required to succeed in major tournaments.
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Twice before, in the quarter-finals the French Open of 2006 and then again one round later in the semi-final of this summer’s Wimbledon, Djokovic left many doubting his resilience as he was forced to submit to pain and hand his opponent victory. In Paris the problem was his back, at the All England Club excruciating blisters on his big toe.

Once again an ailment came to challenge the young Serb’s resolve, this time a case of simple body overheating as the on-court temperatures rose and the humidity added to the torture. But Ferrer did not benefit in the same way his Spanish compatriot Rafael Nadal had done twice previously and Djokovic finally succeeded, winning through 6-4 6-4 6-3.

Things did look decidedly ominous as Djokovic began to flag under the midday sun with the match barely an hour old. Temperatures had been on the sultry side of warm all tournament but Super Saturday proved to be even more sweltering with the wind that had gusted in from Long Island noticeably absent.

“I have played a lot of matches here with long points. I’m a baseline player and spend a lot of energy on the court so it was not easy for me to hold on,” said Djokovic, who has already spent more than 16 hours on court. “Mentally I had to be focused. Now I hope I can recover in time and it was a relief that I won in straight sets. If it had gone to four or five who knows what would have happened. Yet, what I have done here is an amazing achievement and it means a lot to me.”

Djokovic had appeared strangely reticent in the opening exchanges despite the fact he undeniably possessed far greater skills and a larger variety of shots than his opponent, whose great strengths were his speed around the court and ability to recover from seemingly exhausting confrontations. An immediate break of serve went against the Serb, who was clearly struggling to find his initial range with a succession of errors flying off his normally reliable forehand.

Nobody with a flagging body has ever prevailed on the New York cement and before too long, Djokovic realised he needed to show some fortitude. Supplying the perfect response to falling 4-1 behind, the third seed won seven games in succession to comprehensively turn the tables.

However it soon became apparent that Djokovic’s athletic surge had taken its’ toll. Both the trainer Clay Sniteman and the tournament physician Dr Michael Yorio were called to attend the Serb, who complained of a headache and overheating.

A pill was prescribed for the initial problem, an ice pack strung around his neck for the second, before a white baseball cap was tugged over his head.

Djokovic was forced to dig deep into his powers of resilience to survive.

Within a couple of games the medication had clearly taken effect on Djokovic but perhaps the greatest tonic was the propensity of errors that once again mounted up Ferrer.

The will of the little Spaniard, so stoic in a near four-hour long marathon against David Nalbandian and then again in small hours of the morning destruction of Nadal, just seemed to diminish and victory was ultimately a formality for the third seed.

After an unusually slack start that saw Federer powerless to stop his serve being broken in the opening game and then flirt with going a double break down, the same looked set to be the case for the world No 1. Davydenko may have reached the last four as the only competitor not to relinquish a set and established a reputation as the most uncharitable player since Ivan Lendl got to the same stage 20 years ago by dropping just 34 games, but his challenge fell away as Federer got his game properly into gear.

The second set was a relative sprint with Federer committing just four unforced errors while Davydenko, by virtue of losing all his previous nine encounters with his opponent, seemed beset by an inferiority complex. Of course he will not be the last to suffer such a fate but with the match apparently won by Federer, the quality of tennis plummeted.

Six service breaks in succession amazed the crowd and Federer had to save two points before stopping the trend and reasserting himself to round out victory in two hours and 20 minutes before focusing his attention on today.

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