Monday, September 12, 2011

US OPEN 2011: Men's Final Preview

Rafael Nadal ESP (2) v Novak Djokovic SRB (1).

 For the first time since 1995 the #1 and #2 players in the world will be competing in the U.S. Open men's singles championship match. Amazingly, Djokovic and Nadal have competed as #1 and #2 in 5 finals already this year and all five have been won by then-World #2 Djokovic. One of these was in the 2011 Wimbledon final when it was clear that the next day, regardless of the result, Djokovic would become World #1, and then he emphasized his position by dismissing Nadal in four sets to win his first Wimbledon title and 2nd major of the year.

Now, Djokovic is World #1 and playing in his first grand slam as the #1 seed. The 2010 U.S. Open singles final was between these two players, and Nadal won relatively easily in a 4-set match, delayed by rain to the third Monday of the tournament.

How They Got Here
N. Djokovic d. R. Federer 6-7(7) 4-6 6-3 6-2 7-5. For the second year in a row Djokovic defeated Federer in a U.S. Open semifinal despite being two match points down. Federer served brilliantly and played aggressive tennis for the first two sets and then his play dipped immediately in the 3rd and Djokovic's rose to win that set. Again in the fourth set Federer quickly went down a break and then another break. It's possible that the Swiss player might have been marshalling his forces to play a 5th set, but in my eyes the reason for Djokovic winning the 3rd and 4th sets was a combination of the Serb playing well and Federer playing not so well. Then in the fifth set Federer managed to get a break in the 8th game of the set and served for the match at 5-3, 40-15. On his first match point down Djokovic hit a go-for-broke first-serve forehand return winner smack on the sideline. On the second match point, at 40-30, Federer hit a good body serve which Djokovic barely managed to get back relatively short in the court, Federer skipped forwarded and attempted to hit a cross-court forehand angle winner behind Djokovic but the ball hit the net cord and bounced out of the court. Deuce. Instead of taking his time and realizing the importance of being two points away from one of the biggest wins of the year, Federer played quickly, mangled a backhand into the net and faced breakpoint. He swiped that away with a quick ace. Back to deuce. Unable to buy a first serve at this point, Djokovic was ahead in the point from the beginning and won that point for a second breakpoint. This time Federer double faulted on breakpoint down to hand Djokovic the lead 6-5. The new #1 quickly served out his service game, reaching match point and Federer responded to a good serve with a weak backhand reply which sailed long. Game, set and match. Djokovic is now 63-2 for 2011. Federer will finish 2011 without winning a major title for the first time since 2002.

R. Nadal d. A. Murray 6-4 6-2 3-6 6-2. Although I predicted Murray to make his breakthrough and win this match, he again showed why he is not mentally prepared to win a major. In the first two sets Murray seemed content to just play long rallies with Nadal, refusing to be aggressive and cursing like a pirate. He was also giving a running commentary on his own game, radiating negative energy all over the court that Nadal feasted on, growing more aggressive with every wince and yelp the Brit produced. After being down two sets Murray re-focussed, cut down on the negative energy and ran like a gazelle aroundthe court, winning the 3rd set relatively easily. But in the 4th set he fell way behind early and though he made a push at the end, it was too little too late. Murray becomes only the 7th player in history to reach the semifinals or better in all four majors for the year, but he is 0-3 in major finals so far. Nadal is able to reach the U.S. Open final for the second consecutive year.

My Prediction
I incorrectly predicted the result of the women's final, where the underdog Samantha Stosur beat heavily favored Serena Williams to win her first major title (and 3rd tour title overall). This time, it is Novak Djokovic who is going for his first U.S. Open and 4th major title over someone who has one 10 major titles and is the defending champion.

Head-to-head even with five consecutive losses, Nadal still leads the match up 16 to 12 but on hard courts Djokovic leads 9-5. It is Novak's best surface and Nadal's worst. Their games match up even worse on hard courts than they do on other surfaces. There's no question that Djokovic is playing better than he played last year, and that Nadal is not. So clearly the match will be closer than last year's final. Nadal has had difficulty winning sets against Djokovic this year, and grown repeatedly hesitant at "dangerous" moments. Djokovic knows he is playing with house money since he just won a match for only the second time in his career being down two-sets-to-love, and he did it against Roger Federer! It will be hard to over-estimate how confident he will be and how much he wants this title to cement his #1 status for the rest of the year, ending the Federer-Nadal duopoloy for good, and marking the beginning of the Djokovic-Nadal-Federer "trivalry."

MadProfessah's pick: Djokovic.

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