Djokovic and Nadal gear up for second Masters showdown
Miami produced a perfect semi-final line-up as Nadal, Federer and Djokovic played out their three-way rivalry
The last hard court Masters of the spring -and the last Masters on US soil until August -could not have conjured up a better prospect for US tennis fans in Miami.
The semi-finals reunited the top three seeds -Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer -for the second consecutive tournament.
It was, in fact, the 18th time since Roland Garros in 2007 that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic had all reached the same semi-finals: and the 10th in a Masters.
Djokovic earned his place with a 6-4 6-2 win over Kevin Anderson in one of his tougher matches in Miami, but although the Djokovic serve percentage was not as high as he has come to expect, the Serb still advanced to the semis for the loss of just 14 games in four matches -and without dropping his own serve once.
There, Djokovic met America’s unlikely new top-ranked player, Mardy Fish, who overtakes Andy Roddick after this tournament for the first time in their careers.
On paper, Fish’s chances of progressing were slim -he had failed to beat Djokovic in their last five meetings -but this was his third semi-final of the year and he had managed to take some impressive scalps in the Miami draw: Richard Gasquet, Juan Martin Del Potro and David Ferrer.
In the opening stages, it certainly did not look like a foregone conclusion for Djokovic when play was halted for an hour’s rain break at 2-2, 15/30 on the Serb’s serve. He was not moving this his usual fluidity and admitted afterwards that he was “lucky not to go a break down”.
But he returned after the interval feeling “different”, broke Fish’s first service game, and went on to an impressive 6-3, 6-1 win that took him into his third Miami final.
So Djokovic continues his extraordinary unbroken 2011 run and now also boasts 40 unbroken service games through the Miami draw.
When asked about his current form, he said: “I don’t feel invincibleÃ¢â‚¬Â¦What I feel is big confidence. What I feel is that I’m playing the best tennis of my life.” And that bodes well for the quality of a final in which he will face the man that he met just two weeks ago in Indian Wells: Nadal.
Djokovic went on to win that highly competitive showdown in the desert in three sets, but Nadal believes he is feeling and playing much better this week. And no-one who watched his demolition of Federer in the other semi-final would argue with that assessment.
The top seed had enjoyed a straightforward journey through the Miami draw until a quarter-final tussle with Tomas Berdych that took Nadal two and a quarter hours to settle, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. There was also some concern at the start of the third set when he summoned a physio for treatment on his right arm.
However, judging from a subsequent string of aces, including a love service game to win the match, the problem was not a serious one.
The Federer schedule had been a topsy-turvy affair from the moment his fourth round match was delayed until 12.30 in the morning. That one was quickly over -in 52 minutes -in a sizzling display against boyhood friend Olivier Rochus, but then Federer’s quarter-final match was curtailed after three games when an unfortunate Gilles Simon was forced to retire with a neck injury.
Despite their contrasting progress, however, Federer and Nadal confirmed the most longed-for contest in Miami: the first match on US soil since 2005 between two of the sporting rivals of the age.
Only twice had the two met in North America in their 22-match history, and on both occasions it was in this sun-kissed corner of the continent at the Miami Masters.
The two matches were, in fact, the first they ever played against each other, and set the scene for just how intense the rivalry would become.
The 2004 opener went to the new Ã¢â‚¬Ëœupstart’ Nadal -then just 17 -while the second went to Federer in a three-and-three-quarter-hour five-set final. By July of that same year, 2005, they were ranked Nos 1 and 2 in the world and would remain so -barring three weeks -for five years.
So the anticipation on a super-starry April Fools night was tangible, and under a deep violet sky pricked by starlight sat assorted human luminaries such as Anna Wintour and Andy Garcia.
Although both players started aggressively, it was immediately Federer who offered up the errors, and the tone for the entire match was set when he was quickly broken in his second service game.
Nadal applied constant pressure, was impeccable in defence and maintained his tactical focus -pounding serve and forehand to the Federer backhand. Nadal broke again to take the set 6-3, having conceded just two points on his own serve.
There was a glimmer of a chance for the Swiss in Nadal’s opening game of the second set, but once that eight-minute game went Nadal’s way, the Spaniard surged again, broke and went 3-0 up.
The stronger Nadal played, the more Federer attempted to fire outright winners and his unforced error count rocketed to 38. The last of them -a forehand into the net -conceded the match, 6-2.
Federer was quick to admit it had been an “off night” and he heads direct to Monaco to prepare for the clay: “I want to do well and I want to do better.”
Nadal stays in Florida to face the man who has so convincingly shattered the old Nadal-Federer duopoly.
Djokovic will be attempting to add the Miami title to the three he has already won this year and, in the process, become the first man since Federer himself to win the triple prize of the three big tournaments of the opening three months of the year: the Australian Open and the two Masters in Indian Wells and Miami.
The final will be the first time since 1995 that those two Masters have featured the same two finalists. It was Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras who split the honours on that occasion.
If Nadal continues to play with the same ruthless power and focus that ripped the Federer game apart in the semis, he may rightly be considered the favourite to split the honours again and, on finals day in Miami, become the first man to beat Djokovic in 25 matches.