Open should finally see Federer-Nadal
One could say it was a round-up of the usual suspects, the men’s semifinals of the U.S. Open, were it not for a persistent Russian who has a habit of popping up to crash parties reserved for the game’s notoriously tight hierarchy.
Before Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic play each other for the fourth time in either the final or the semifinal here at Flushing Meadows, Mikhail Youzhny will be meeting Rafael Nadal, having usurped the place the seeding committee had reserved for Andy Murray.
Youzhny’s win over Stan Wawrinka, the man who beat Murray, put the Russian into the last four of a Grand Slam for only the second time in a career that stretches back to 1999. This is his 38th Slam since he got his first taste of the big time by ball-boying for the Russia-USA Davis Cup final in Moscow in 1995 and having his picture taken with Pete Sampras and Jim Courier.
Given that kind of start, perhaps it is no surprise that Youzhny’s greatest achievement so far has been to win the Davis Cup for Russia by staging an amazing comeback from two sets to love down in the fifth rubber of the final in Paris in 2002.
But he has always been a danger, if an inconsistent one, on the ATP tour and Nadal will be the first one to confirm that. They have met 12 times in all and Youzhny has won on four occasions. Significantly, all four wins came on hard courts with the most telling victory coming in the quarterfinals here in 2006. Nadal will not have forgotten that, nor trailing him two sets to love at Wimbledon in 2007.
Nadal has become much more comfortable on hard courts in the last couple of years but the confidence with which Youzhny has been playing in the windy conditions these past few days will make him feel that he has a real chance of making the breakthrough to his first Slam final.
It is obvious from his past record that the Spaniard’s lethal left-handed game does not intimidate him and, as long as he is not fatigued by his five-set battle against Wawrinka, he must have a chance.
However, Nadal looks like a man on a mission with that remaining Slam — the only one he hasn’t landed — just two tantalizing matches from his grasp. He was noting early in the week that the balls were soft by customary standards and that was making it more difficult for him to put his usual amount of heavy top spin on the ball.
But it seemed to be enough to whir Fernando Verdasco to defeat on Thursday night after Verdasco had come at him hard in a brilliantly played first set. Nadal ended up winning 7-5, 6-3, 6-4, which is sort of what happens to so many of Rafa’s victims. Try and push him in a corner and he lashes out.
Nadal is not expecting it to be easy.
“He’s very aggressive, very flat shots,” said Nadal. “This court suits very well his game. I have to be aggressive, also, because if I am losing court against him, it’s going to be impossible to come back. I have to serve well and try to put him out of position with my forehand.”
Nadal was asked about the small change he has made on his serve.
“Another time, please,” he smiled. “It’s only a little bit the grip, that’s all. Maybe tomorrow I serve disaster. But for the moment works well.”
Like Youzhny, Djokovic will walk on court knowing that he can beat his opponent because he has done it five times. Federer, however, has won 10 of their meetings and the fact that three of them have been at Flushing Meadows, gives him a nice little psychological edge.
More important, however, has been the form Federer has shown over the past two weeks. He has always felt comfortable playing here — how could he not with five titles and a runners-up spot over the past six years? And, just when critics were starting to talk of a decline in the great man’s powers, the imperious Swiss begins to look like what so many people call him, the greatest player of all time.
So Djokovic will have his work cut out. All he can hope for is that Federer does not serve quite as well as he has been doing and that old fault lines start appearing again in that sweeping forehand which, when his timing is off, tends to produce some fairly horrendous errors.
But there have been very few of them so far and the odds are that the tournament will end up getting the final so many crave — Federer against Nadal, a battle of the titans.