Breaking down the U.S. Open men’s semis

Rain in New York transformed the traditional “Super Saturday” at the U.S. Open into what should be a “Stellar Sunday” of tennis in the final Grand Slam tournament of 2009.

The forecast calls for plenty of blue skies in Flushing Meadows. Some of the biggest names in men’s tennis are ready to shine. Let’s break down the two semifinals.

No. 1 Roger Federer vs. No. 4 Novak Djokovic

It’s tempting to simply pencil Roger Federer into the final based on his dominance in the Big Apple. The world No. 1 is riding a 39-match winning streak at the U.S. Open. But tennis fans only have to think back to Nadal’s unexpected loss to Soderling at Roland Garros for proof that unpredictable results often occur on a tennis court.

Unlike Nadal in Paris, Federer is fully healthy and has looked sharp at the Open. While Soderling gave Federer some trouble in the later stages of their quarterfinal match this week, the Swiss star has not been severely tested throughout most of the tournament. Federer has not faced a player seeded in top 10. That will change when the five-time defending U.S. Open champion takes on the No. 4 seed Djokovic.

The Serbian came to New York looking to make a statement that he still deserved to be viewed as a truly elite player this year. Although Djokovic has been a mainstay in the top five rankings, many tennis analysts theorized that Federer, Nadal and Murray had separated themselves as the “big three” on the ATP World Tour.

Djokovic’s performances at the first three Grand Slam tournaments this year did little to dispel that notion. As defending champion at the Australian Open, he wilted in intense heat Down Under, retiring in his quarterfinal match against Andy Roddick. Djokovic was stunned in the third round of the French Open by Philipp Kohlschreiber and was bounced in the quarters at Wimbledon by Tommy Haas.

Djokovic has played with renewed enthusiasm in New York. His willingness to joke during an impromptu rally with John McEnroe when the tennis icon came down from the broadcast booth at Arthur Ashe Stadium seemed to reflect a return to the more carefree attitude Djokovic had displayed in the past.

In the moments that have actually counted on the scoreboard, Djokovic has used an improved intermediate game to pick up more free points in his service games. He displayed mental toughness in a gritty four-set win over Fernando Verdasco in the quarterfinals that should serve him well when he takes on Federer.

Federer and Djokovic have met 12 times. Federer has posted eight victories in their head-to-head encounters, but Djokovic has beaten the U.S. Open’s top seed twice this year. One of those victories came on a hard court in the semifinals in Miami when Djokovic rallied from a set down. Federer avenged that loss in the championship match in Cincinnati last month.

The smart money suggests that Federer will win their semifinal match at the Open giving him an opportunity to capture the 16th Grand Slam title of his impeccable career. But look for Djokovic to offer fierce resistance in a match that could be a five-set classic.

No. 3 Rafael Nadal vs. No. 6 Juan Martin del Potro

Rafael Nadal seems to have enough physical maladies to appear on an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” The Spaniard has battled knee tendonitis that certainly played a major role in his upset loss to Robin Soderling in Paris.

Now Nadal is dealing with an abdominal strain that he suffered during the U.S. Open Series. Nadal has already decided not to play in next week’s Davis Cup semifinal tie between Spain and Israel because of the issue.

While he concedes he has not been at full strength, Nadal has gutted out some outstanding victories to reach the U.S. Open semifinals for the second consecutive year. Rafa’s shot-making was crisp in his fourth-round win over Gael Monfils. The No. 3 seed had to wait a day to complete his quarterfinal win against Fernando Gonzalez because of rain, but Nadal bageled the Chilean in the third set to complete his straight-set win.

Nadal will need to be sharp against del Potro, who has advanced to a Grand Slam semifinal for the second time this year. The No. 6 seed saw his section of the draw open up when Marin Cilic upset second-seeded Andy Murray. But the way del Potro has been serving so far during the fortnight in the borough of Queens, the Argentine may have defeated Murray had they met in the quarterfinals.

Del Potro has also been controlling most of the rallies from the baseline using his power game to his advantage. Del Potro’s is a towering presence at 6-6, but his impressive mobility is a reflection of the evolution of tennis. Del Potro hopes that athletic ability will be enough to carry him to the final.

If Nadal can get past del Potro, the man from Mallorca will have a chance to become the seventh male player to complete the career Grand Slam. However, look for del Potro to come up with his third straight win over Nadal. Del Potro was able to dictate the tempo in his victories against Nadal earlier this year in Miami and last month in Montreal.

If Nadal was 100 percent, his championship experience might be the deciding factor in this match. But even Nadal may not have enough tenacity to will himself to a victory over the red-hot del Potro.

Result: Del Potro defeats Nadal, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2