The men’s singles draw at Wimbledon this year had pitted the top seeds against those who had fallen by the wayside in terms of rankings, but whose potential never lay in doubt. Third seed Spaniard Rafael Nadal had to face the mercurial Nick Kyrgios in a match which lived up to its billing, never reading like a second-round match. Nadal won that match in four sets 6-3, 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 and that’s the most he’s been challenged at the All England Club this year. The third seed went on to win his following matches in straight sets in what were rather embarrassing spectacles, highlighting the gulf between Nadal and his contemporaries.
There were some hoping for an ‘upset’ when the American big server Sam Querrey was slotted as Nadal’s quarter-final opponent. Querrey had beaten the fifth seed Dominic Thiem in the first round. Could the unseeded American, who’s known for being naturally attuned to the grass at Wimbledon, be destiny’s child and down one of the ‘Big Three’ players – Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer – who have been winning the title amongst themselves like a family heirloom since 2003. Nadal’s emphatic ‘No’ to that question was heard loud and clear when he beat Querrey 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.
The American’s weaknesses unravelled quickly. Nadal, adept at dictating the tempo, had Querrey resemble a bystander with little control over the match. Even when Querrey would send a deep return from the back of the court, Nadal’s dubious forehand had the American stranded in the middle, like a sheep blinded by the lights, like a goalkeeper diving to the wrong side while facing a penalty. One could go on with the analogies but they wouldn't do justice to Querrey’s haplessness against a rampaging Nadal.
Nadal will face the sternest test of his campaign when he takes on the second seed Roger Federer in the semi-final. Before the tournament began, Nadal’s projected route had predicted a semi-final against Federer. While Federer was dealt a relatively easier draw, Nadal’s section of the draw had him with the Australian Nick Kyrgios. The 13th seed Marin Cilic loomed on the horizon for a possible fourth-round match before a quarter-final against the fifth seed Dominic Thiem. Both Cilic and Thiem came undone in their earlier rounds whilst Nadal’s exuberance jumped ten-fold post his win against Kyrgios. Judging by the third seed’s triumphant displays, he could as well be in a trance where the grass at Wimbledon feels like the Roland Garros clay.
Roger Federer too, hardly broke a sweat in his campaign thus far before the eighth seed Kei Nishikori took the first set in their quarter-final. Although, judging by the rest of the proceedings, it appears that Nishikori could only reap the advantage when Federer was slow off the blocks. Thereafter, the Swiss came back to win the match 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 capping off a well-rounded display which never ceased to wow. On occasion, Federer would scurry across his court before the poetic backhand made thumping winners down the line.
It is this kind of performance from Federer which could pose a yet not conceivable threat to Nadal, considering his few weaknesses were only evident in his second-round match against Kyrgios. Nadal relished the prospect of prolonging the rallies from the back of the court. Kyrgios never yielded to the same, cutting the rallies short by dropping the ball close to the net, forcing Nadal to play beyond his strengths. Federer has over the years, perfected the drop shot to the point where the ball, upon landing at the opposite side, spins away from the opponent. He charges the net with surety and slam-dunks his volleys, not waiting for the return to bounce. That could spell trouble for Nadal who could barely make a passing shot against Kyrgios.
Nadal leads the head-to-head record against Federer 24-15. Their most recent match, the semi-final of this year’s French Open was also won by Nadal who went on to win a record 12th title in Paris. However, before that match, Federer had been on a hot streak, having won six straight matches against Nadal. The fact that those victories came on hard courts bodes well for Federer. Grass as a surface is more like the hard synthetic courts where the ball skids along, unlike clay courts which are slow as the ball sits up on bounce. Nevertheless, both players are likely to play at least four sets, if not go the distance, in a match that is bound to be fiercely contested.
The other semi-final of the day will see the No 1 seed Novak Djokovic face the 23rd seeded Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut who’ll be featuring in his first semifinal at a Grand Slam. For Bautista Agut, winning the clash need not appear a distant dream for he has the recent record by his side. In their last two meetings, Bautista Agut emerged the victor on hard courts. He lost the first set on both occasions, only to force a decider which he won comfortably. Also helping matters for the Spaniard will be his flatter forehand which zips across the surface and is bound to push Djokovic in tight corners.
Djokovic, who beat the 21st seed David Goffin in his quarter-final 6-4, 6-0, 6-2, had been likened to an “eight-legged spider” by his opponent’s coach Thomas Johansson who was hinting at the No 1 seed’s prowess at returning shots which would have been winners against anyone else. Djokovic does so routinely, enacting yoga-esque leg splits at the back of his court while chasing returns on both ends. On such occasions, he resorts to playing squash, not returning with a forehand but with a high arc lob which lands deep on the other side. He has the skill of turning this defence into attack in a heartbeat as he hunts down a return running down his wrong side where he pulls out a cross-court backhand.
Against Goffin, it never came to that for Djokovic had matters in complete control, swatting aside the Belgian with a little below an hour on the clock. The ability to hunt down Bautista Agut’s flatter return might just pull Djokovic over the line. The Spaniard though would take heart from the fact that he remains the sole hopeful for breaking the juggernaut of the ‘Big Three’ of men’s tennis. His campaign thus far has all the makings of a man in form – having only been pushed to four sets in his quarterfinal against Guido Pella. It remains to be seen if we have an ‘upset’ on the cards and a first-time finalist at SW19.
Updated Date: Jul 12, 2019 10:59:00 IST