All-Star Matchup In The Semis As Federer Takes On Djokovic

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – In a match where timely shotmaking turned the tide time after time, Roger Federer fittingly rocked the court-side clock with one final authoritative ace to cap a 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 sweep of Robin Soderling and fly into the US Open final four for the seventh straight year. Continuing his quest to regain the US Open title he lost to Juan Martin del Potro last September, Federer will square off against Novak Djokovic in Saturday’s semifinals in their fourth consecutive Flushing Meadows clash.

It was a superlative serving performance from Federer, who ripped 18 aces and saved five of six break points in subduing Soderling. The fifth-seeded Swede had four break point chances at the outset of the match but could not convert and Federer picked up his serve considerably from that point forward.

“I think the serve was today the biggest key, because obviously he’s very famous for serving extremely accurate, extremely hard, over a long period of time,” Federer said. “That’s what makes him so hard to beat really. That wasn’t the case today.  He struggled to get the pace, the accuracy going, until midway through the third set when I think he started to hit it a bit better.  Then it was almost too late, really.”

The third-seeded Djokovic came to court with a dragon on his back, fire in his eyes and after an early mis-step found the swagger in his step in scorching a flat and floundering Gael Monfils, 7-6(2), 6-1, 6-2, to storm into the semifinals.

Hard court is Djokovic’s best surface. He can use his expansive reach to rip returns down the lines off both sides, he covers the court quickly and the speed of the Deco Turf adds some sting to his serve. Federer has won eight of his 12 meetings on hard court with Djokovic, but believes Djokovic is at his best on hard court.

“I think this kind of favors his play the most, kind of a faster hard court, because he can pick up some incredible balls, you know, half volley them, redirect them,” Federer said. “It helps maybe serve a bit more, and on the return he can, you know, zone in a bit, and all of a sudden he’s really tough to pass, you know, when he’s returning. That’s what makes him one of the best players in the game right now, and especially on this surface he’s obviously in the top 3 or 4.  That’s why he’s been able to play consistent here at the Open.  He’s obviously waiting for a breakthrough where he can win this title.”

Djokovic fell to Federer in the 2007 final and was victimized by Federer’s stupefying between-the-legs passing shot in last September’s semifinal. Djokovic said stylistically, the rivalry has not changed; he’s just hoping to reverse the result on Saturday.

“We do have more or less same game, you know.  Just maybe experience wise in my case I feel better now,” Djokovic said. “Physically I feel better than I did last year.  I feel stronger, faster on the court.  The conditions are quite different, so let’s see, you know.  Let’s see how this Saturday is gonna come out, you know, if we gonna have normal conditions or not.”

The second-seeded Swiss is 10-5 lifetime vs. Djokovic, including a 6-1, 3-6, 7-5 win in Toronto last month.

“Here we go again,” Federer said in anticipation of the latest installment of his rivalry with Djokovic. “He’s a great player. I got really lucky to get through there in Toronto and he’s obviously looking for the big break through here at the Open, so it’s gonna be a tough one.”

Though Federer has won nine of the 10 sets he’s played vs. Djokovic at the Open, the matches have typically been tightly-contested affairs, including the Swiss stylist’s 7-6(2), 7-6(4), 6-4 triumph in the 2007 final in which Federer fended off five set points in the first set and two set points in the second set, relying on his edge in experience, expertise in playing the the right shots on pivotal points, exceptional anticipation and a first serve that was sharpest in crucial stages to subdue the first Serbian man to contest major final.

Since his five-set win over Serbian Davis Cup teammate Viktor Troicki in the first round, the Djoker has won 12 consecutive sets and will enter the semifinals playing his best tennis of the tournament.

Opening the season by capturing his 16th career major championship in Melbourne in Australia, Federer suffered successive Grand Slam quarterfinal setbacks at Roland Garros and Wimbledon ending his reign in Paris and London and increasing speculation that Federer was more vulnerable in majors than ever.

On a drizzly day in June,  Soderling reigned a series of resounding winners across the red clay in overwhelming Federer, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 in the French Open quarterfinals to snap the World No. 1’s record streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals. It was Federer’s first loss before a Grand Slam semifinal in seven years, ending one of the most hallowed record streaks in tennis history.

Soderling could not reproduced that form tonight, in part because the wind wreaked havoc with his high ball toss and because he has little margin for error on his flat strokes.

“I didn’t put so many first serves in as I needed to because of the wind,” Soderling said. “It was tough for me. So I could have needed some more first serves. Maybe I would have played better then.”

The lanky Swede did not hit an ace until the third set. To his credit, Soderling did not give up the fight as Monfils did in today’s first quarterfinal against Djokovic. He began to center his shots more and when Federer missed the mark on an inside-out forehand, Soderling broke for 5-3 in the third set.

The two-time French Open finalist could not capitalize on the break, putting a forehand into net as Federer broke back for 4-5.

Down 15-30 Federer benefited from a Soderling error to draw even then lured the big man forward with a drop shot followed by a forehand volley that rattled Soderling’s Head racquet. For all his prodigious power from the backcourt, Soderling is almost clueless at times at net and he screamed in frustration at himself as Federer eventually worked out a hold for 5-all.

Summer started with a struggle for Federer, who followed his French Open demise with a Wimbledon quarterfinal loss to Tomas Berdych. But he’s crafted another late-summer resurgence in picking up his play after Labor Day and working toward a potential blockbuster final against World No. 1 Rafael Nadal.

“I think he’s playing great. Because he lost in the quarters of the French and in Wimbledon, some people think he’s more vulnerable than ever.  But I think he’s actually playing really well,” Djokovic said of Federer. “He played great in Toronto and Cincinnati, and he’s just loves this surface.  He loves this tournament.  He has won so many times. Obviously he’s a favorite.  But, you know, we played so many times, and mostly we played on this surface.  It’s no secret in each other’s game.  Just I will try to hold on, you know.  He always tries to put pressure on his opponent.  He’s very aggressive.”

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

No Joke, Blake Exits Open

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – A streaking James Blake caught up to the ball before it expired, pushed a precise pass up the line and danced across the court with a fist-pump during the second-set tie breaker against Novak Djokovic tonight. Blake still has a burst, but Djokovic put an end to his US Open run.

Playing pivotal points with precision, Djokovic won five consecutive games to open the match and quell the crowd then put down a second-set uprising in registering a 6-1, 7-6(4), 6-3 victory on a windy night to advance to the US Open fourth round.

Because he plays with more variety and can put more air under his shots, Djokovic can dial down his play when the elements require more safety and net clearance, whereas Blake basically hits the same hard flat shots time after time that gave him little margin for error.

“It’s a big mental struggle when you have such a strong wind to find a way how to try to play good tennis, especially if you have somebody across the net who is so aggressive, taking everything early and playing a risky game,” Djokovic said. “I think I was serving very well. It was a high percentage of first serves in. It was important in these conditions.”

Blake earned break points in the first game of the match only to see Djokovic, whose serve has been shaky at times this season, drill successive aces to erase both break points and ignite his first-set run. Djokovic plays with more spin than Blake, he takes the shorter preparation steps to set up for his shots and controls his game amid the bluster better than Blake.

“It was tough, tough conditions. He did a great job of handling them,” Blake said. “He’s one of the best defenders in the game, which makes it tough on a night like that where I need to rely on my power and speed to sort of dictate and move forward. It’s tough when you need to get into position and the ball can move one way or the other. You are not going to hit it cleanly. If I don’t hit it perfect, he’s too good of a counter-puncher. He hurt me too many times when I was in position and in my head to win the point. He did a great job of turning it around.”

Since Djokovic’s draining five-set win over Serbian Davis Cup teammate Viktor Troicki in the first round in which he found back from a two set to one deficit to earn a 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory, he’s run through six straight sets. And tonight’s match was ideal preparation for his fourth-round clash with Blake’s former Florida neighbor and long-time golfing buddy Mardy Fish.

“We had a tough one here a couple of years back at the US Open,” Djokovic said. “I think he’s playing his best tennis at this moment. He’s moving really well. He’s serving good as he served always. He has a lot of talent. He’s recognizing the moment, coming to net. He has a lot of variety in the game. I guess I have to be on top of the game to be able to win.”

Though Djokovic is unbeaten in four matches with Fish, the Vero Beach, Florida native has taken a set in three of those four meetings. Djokovic beat Fish, 7-6(5), 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(3) in the 2006 US Open before Fish transformed himself with a fitness and nutrition regimen. They faced off most recently in Indian Wells in March with Djokovic prevailing 6-1, 0-6, 6-2.

Five-time US Open champion Roger Federer said Fish earned his respect before his 30-pound weight loss.

“I always thought he was an incredibly good player, regardless of his weight, to be honest.  I think it’s great to show maybe other players, too, to see what’s possible at a later stage in your career, if you come up with some new ideas,” Federer said. “It’s great to see him playing well, doing well.  He’s a nice guy.  He’s always been talented, so we knew that.”

Fish is playing for his second trip to the US Open quarterfinals.

New York fans showed two-time quarterfinalist Blake their appreciation when he was honored on opening night of the US Open. Djokovic showed Blake the door tonight.

The inevitable “is Blake done?” speculation began before Blake was even done walking out the door of his post-match press conference. Blake insists he’s intent on playing next season.

“I really hope that wasn’t my last match on Arthur Ashe Stadium,” Blake said. “I definitely want to be back next year. If it was (my last match), you know, I competed my heart out. I did everything I could. But I think I got more in me and I think I’m going to be back there. Maybe more night matches, some more excitement for the crowds, some good times. I definitely believe that. I hope it comes true next year.”

Clearly, it’s unlikely Blake will ever return to the heights he ascended when he reached No. 4 in the world, but to suggest Blake is done because he was swept by the No. 3 in the world after an injury-plagued season in which he never really found his form is foolish.

This is a man who came back from a broken bone in his neck after his horrific collision with a net post and a bout with Zoster that left one side of his face frozen to play the best tennis of his life. If Blake has shown you anything aside from a ferocious forehand and lighting speed around the court, it’s his willingness to work his way back and not back down from a challenge.

“Once I got hurt in ’04 and got sick, I never planned on this career as a marathon,” Blake said. “I tried to treat it as a sprint, every match being its own sort of entity, working hard to win that. If it’s my last, it’s my last. If that came at 25 when I blew out my knee, if that came at 30 when I do something to my back so be it. I’m going to treat every match as a sprint and just do my best every time. When it ends, it ends. I don’t feel like right now I’m out there looking for charity. I think I can play with just about anyone still and I don’t think I’m at my best physically right now.”

If Blake can regain his health, is he willing to make the adjustments to his game to make the best use of his ability. Contrast the court sense and dynamic all-court game Ryan Harrison showed in his five-set loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky with the tennis Blake played tonight. Harrison, who is not nearly as quick around the court as Blake, understands that tennis is a sport that requires the ability to play offense and defense and the knowledge of when to transition.

The former Harvard all American doesn’t need tennis and tennis doesn’t need him, but Blake still brings the buzz and class to court and still believes he’s got something left in the tank.

“Even if I’m not 100 percent right now I don’t feel like I’m hurting the game by being out here,” Blake said. “I’m not on a pity tour just getting beat up first round every week by kind of nobodies. I lost to a pretty darn good player. I’m playing okay and I know I can play better because the preparation can be better.”

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.