So the door was open for defending and three-time champion Novak Djokovic, three-time finalist Roger Federer, and one-time finalists David Ferrer and Stan Wawrinka to stake a claim.
And although, in the last five years, only four of 47 Masters crowns had escaped the grasp of Djokovic, Federer, Nadal or Andy Murray, two of those four had gone to Ferrer and Wawrinka. These semis, then, would not be short of competitive fire.
In the first, 32-year-old Ferrer fought like a tiger, but ultimately fell to the ruthless precision of Djokovic, 6-4, 6-4. Would Wawrinka fare any better against No2 seed Federer?
In the decade since the Swiss Davis Cup colleagues had first played one another, in Rotterdam in 2005, the results and the kudos had spent most of their time favouring Federer. Back then, he was already established as long-term No1, was embarking on one of the best seasons ever put together—an 81-4, 11-title year—and Wawrinka was ranked 128.
It would be another four years, in just their third match, before Wawrinka got the better of his fellow Swiss, on the clay of Monte Carlo. He would, though, not beat Federer again until the same tournament last year, winning the final to claim his first Masters title. But by now, Wawrinka had become a different animal, one revitalised by a new self-belief and a new coach, and the rewards had followed his enviable, powerhouse of a single-handed backhand up the rankings.
He reached his first World Tour Finals in 2013, won his first Grand Slam at the start of 2014 in Australia, beating Nadal for the first time in 13 attempts along the way, and passed Federer in the rankings for the first time, reaching No3. His lead did not last long, but he denied his compatriot the big Monte-Carlo title two months later.
Their two subsequent matches had been closely contested, too, even on Federer’s favourite Wimbledon turf. Wawrinka pressed him hard through four sets in the quarters, and at the O2, they produced the match of the tournament, a classic of such quality and intensity that it will go down as one of the best of the decade. Federer fought off match points to win 7-6(6) in the third set, but Wawrinka had taken such a toll that Federer was forced to pull out of the final on the following day with an injured back.
They went on to join forces to win the Davis Cup for Switzerland a week later, but they had not faced one another across a net since. This match, then, was eagerly anticipated—particularly because of the surge in form Wawrinka had shown in beating Nadal the night before in a blistering display reminiscent of that Australian final. Not since winning Rotterdam had Wawrinka won back-to-back matches, and now he had taken out Nadal in straight sets. His first action? He wrote on the TV camera: “See you tomorrow, RF”.
It was the oh-so-gentle sound of a gauntlet being thrown down, though there was undoubtedly a hint of a smile playing at the corners of Wawrinka’s mouth as he did so. He was certain that somewhere in a hotel in the heart of Rome, Federer was watching.
Perhaps Federer decided to call his friend’s bluff by putting the big-serving Wawrinka in to serve first. It looked, initially, as though the bluff had failed.
Wawrinka began just as he had finished against Nadal: all guns blazing. He opened with a love hold, including a couple of aces, and then Federer sprayed forehands long and wide to concede an immediate break.
Wawrinka continued: a love hold with a couple of good net finishes, 3-0, with 15 out of the first 20 points. But then things went awry, and a double fault took Wawrinka to 0-40.
Federer employed what would become a winning tactic against a man who loves nothing better than to hit full-blooded drives from the back of the court: He chipped a backhand short to draw Wawrinka forward and under the ball, and sure enough, it caught the net.
With the break wiped out, Federer relaxed, his service motion settled into its familiar fluid sway, and he held to love with an ace: 3-3.
Federer did trip up, literally, when he caught his foot in the same dip in the clay that had upset Djokovic six hours before. But by now, Federer’s serving was so grooved that he did not need to run the baseline, merely hold to love.
Instead it was Wawrinka who lost focus, frustrated at his inability to hold Federer at bay and thrown out of his rhythm by the variety of pace, spin and angle that Federer delivered. The nail in the coffin was a bullet of a backhand return of serve from Federer for the break, and after 34 minutes, Federer had served out the set, 6-4.
It went from bad to worse for Wawrinka. Despite an opening love hold, he was broken in the third game, again trapped by a chipped backhand, and in the blink of an eye, Federer led 4-1 courtesy of another break. The world no2 was now in full flow, serving and volleying, chipping and driving, so that, by 5-1, he had won 20 of the last 21 points. After 20 minutes, Federer was serving out the second set, 6-2.
So having come to Rome almost as an after-thought when he fell in his first match at the Madrid Masters, Federer has sailed through the draw, beating No15 seed Kevin Anderson, No6 seed Tomas Berdych and now No8 seed Wawrinka without dropping a set, and reaches his fourth Rome final.
In his last two finals here, he was beaten by Nadal. This time, he will face the defending champion and world No1 Djokovic, in what has become, in many people’s eyes, the rivalry of the last two years.
In fact the last man to beat Djokovic this year, back in the Dubai final, was Federer, and in their last clay match, in Monte-Carlo last year, Federer was also the winner. But Djokovic won their most recent meeting, a three-setter, in the Indian Wells final.
Now, with Roland Garros round the corner, there is more at stake in this compelling rivalry than ever before.
Do not miss it.
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