Good news for all concerned, then, that he reached Saturday’s semi-final showdown, and even better news that he was joined there by the next two seeds in the draw, Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro.
The final character in the drama came in the unassuming frame of Nikolay Davydenko who chose his quarter-final against Richard Gasquet to find the best of his unique brand of fast, flat, incisive tennis. Not for many a match had the Russian shown such passion and aggression on the court: a reminder of just how good this man can be.
First up were the big boys: Both Berdych and del Potro are little short of 2m in height and both are capable of hitting the fuzz off a tennis ball. They had met only three times before and never since Del Potro left the tour for wrist surgery.
The Argentine had a Grand Slam title to his name—the US Open in 2009—and the Czech a Grand Slam final—Wimbledon 2010. The former peaked, prior to surgery, at a ranking of four, the latter at six. It was, on paper, hard to call, especially as both were improving through the week.
The balance soon shifted in favour of the Argentine, though, as he broke in the opening game and held with ease. He finished the job with a break to love to close the set, 6-3, winning 12 out of 12 points from his first serve in the set.
An increasingly frustrated Berdych struggled even more in the second set as the del Potro forehand cranked up and found the back corners with impressive consistency. But it was the Argentine’s improved movement and flexibility that made a Berdych comeback all but impossible.
Del Potro retrieved with angled slice and cross-court backhands to outlast Berdych in almost every rally. The Czech found enough of a flourish to hold his serve to love in the sixth game but del Potro reasserted his dominance to serve out the match to love, 6-1.
He afterwards commented that this was his first victory over a top-10 player this year. In fact, he had not beaten a top-10 player—except by retirement—since Robin Soderling in Estoril last April. No wonder the normally lugubrious Argentine could not take the smile off his face.
“I played almost perfect against Berdych today. I’m improving match by match, today I played better than yesterday and tomorrow I have to play better if I want to win the tournament.
“I thought I had many fans here, Argentine and local fans, but tomorrow if I play against Roger, I don’t know if they chant for me or for Roger—but anyway I’m really glad to see a good crowd.”
It was a timely remark because, shortly afterward, Federer was warming up on Court 1 to a capacity—and adoring—crowd and, with his semi-final match just 90 minutes away, he was still submerged beneath fans seeking their special picture or their precious signature.
It was in stark contrast to Davydenko’s almost unnoticed practice session the day before, watched only by his opponent and his wife. He afterwards strolled through the Ahoy Plaza to drop his rackets for stringing and barely a head turned.
The Russian was bringing a 2-16 losing record to Federer into the second semi-final, his most recent loss coming in Doha last month in 54 minutes. But Davydenko made a real impression on the Rotterdam crowed with his explosive shot-making against Gasquet—literally to gasps of wonder. If he could carry that swelling confidence into this match, it might produce fireworks.
But it was not pyrotechnics that galvanized the crowd, rather the seesawing tension of two men who by turns found scintillating winners and wild errors, earned break points and threw them away.
The first chance came to Davydenko in the first game but Federer survived. The Russian’s second chance came in the ninth game, and a forehand into the net from Federer gave his opponent the 5-4 lead. The set nearly had one more twist as Federer earned two break back points, but another error from one of the most revered shot in tennis, the Federer forehand, handed the set to Davydenko, 6-4.
Federer continued to play in what looked close to bewilderment—both at his own shots missing their mark and Davydenko’s ground-strokes zipping past his racket. Come the third game, the Russian broke again and it was not just Federer’s head that shook but many in the crowd, too.
Then in the sixth, with Federer’s serve starting to make its mark, he broke back and held strongly with his first full-blooded net attack for two serve-and-volley winners.
A more energized Federer carried his momentum into the eighth game and broke again. He served out the set with his best string of points of the match—four first serves, the last an ace, to level with a love game, 6-3.
The drama, though, was only just beginning. Davydenko opened serve and faced five break points, but he drew deep to play a daring drop shot winner and a second serve ace on his way to a hold.
Federer had two more chances in the third game: Again the Russian held. In the fifth, it was Federer’s turn to go down a break point: He, too, held, but the frustrated body language was back as he watched low cross-court winners flash past him time and again.
Now with his first serve slipping to 48 per cent, he came under intense pressure in the eighth game, going 0-40 down and staring defeat in the face. He nevertheless remained the calmest man in arena. Asked after the match about his state of mind at this point, he was frank:
“Even though I was down 0-40, I knew it wasn’t over and that I still had a shot, and even though he would have broken me, I still believed I could break back, so I think my mindset was there, the winner’s mindset.
Sometimes you just don’t have those days, sometimes you think the match is going to run away from you, but I still believed I was going to win, and that’s what got me over the finish line.”
That mindset won him five straight points—two with aces—to level at 4-4. It was enough to make a grown man cry and when Davydenko saw a flourishing Federer take the next four points as well, his head dropped.
It was the work of a minute for the top seed to serve out the match, 6-4, but it had been the work of two-and-a-quarter hours to win just over 100 points and a place in the final.
Federer afterwards praised both the man he had just beaten—“we’ve played a lot of times and it’s nice to see him improving so quickly and playing like we know he can”—and the man against whom he hopes to win his first title of 2012—“it’s also nice to see [Del Potro] back playing well again.”
It has taken the last year for the Argentine to regain the fitness and confidence of his former No4 ranking and, judging from his semi-final performance, he is very near that best.
Federer will have to shake off some of his early weariness in his match, which he attributed partly to the effects of his Davis Cup duties, and convert rather more than three out of 13 break points—though his chances of getting 13 such chances against Del Potro are likely to range from slim to none.
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