Madrid Masters: Djokovic, Federer and Nadal target final
The world's top three have all reached the semi-finals of a 2011 Masters again, writes Marianne Bevis
The top three men in tennis have barely given the rest a look-in this year.
The unbeaten Novak Djokovic has five titles to his name. He has played Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal in the semis or the finals of four of those tournaments, but Madrid is one of the few Masters where he has failed to reach the final.
In winning the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona back-to-back, Nadal remains unbeaten on clay for almost two years.
Federer, for his part, won in Doha and lost out to Djokovic or Nadal in four of the five remaining events he has contested.
On top of this extraordinary 2011 record is the fact that two of the triumvirate have contested the last two Madrid finals: Federer and Nadal took one title apiece.
So the chances for their hapless opponents in the quarter-finals here were never high.
Nadal faced the 30-year-old Michael Llodra, whose elegant serve-and-volley game has made the most of the fast Madrid clay, but he had played a two-hour, 20-minute three-setter the night before while Nadal sat back and watched: hardly the most encouraging scenario for the Frenchman.
They took to court beneath a cooling, cloudy sky that took a little edge from the clay -an inauspicious start for Llodra -and Nadal surged to a 4-0 lead in the blink of an eye. Llodra battled to his first service hold through several deuces, but it delayed matters only briefly as a sternly focused Nadal served out, 6-2.
The second set was much the same: creative, attractive and full of variety but the outcome was never in doubt. There was little to fault in the Frenchman’s shot-making. His glorious left-handed single-hander backhand skimmed and sliced to the corners, he leapt and bounded around the net and he served well.
But the defence of Nadal, his speed of reaction and his destructive passing shots were just too complete a package. This most attractive of matches finished, after an hour and a quarter, 6-2.
It also showcased just how many shots Nadal has at his disposal. He, too, volleyed, smashed and sliced -and he also happens to look in near-perfect physical condition. All of which makes the job of Federer in the semis -in what will be their 24th meeting -as daunting as ever.
The Swiss came through his quarter against Robin Soderling in difficult evening conditions: The wind was a destructive force for both men. It was, therefore, a patchy game decorated with numerous errors, and Federer failed to convert three break-point chances to win the first set.
In the tie-break, however, he lifted the pace and ran out the 7-2 winner. He then asserted himself over an increasingly frustrated Soderling who saw two break chances of his own disappear in line-skimming precision from Federer.
The Swiss struck, as he had almost done in the first set, in the ninth game to take the only break of the match, and served out, 6-4.
Federer will be pleased to get this one in the bag. Soderling scored his only win from their previous 16 meetings in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros last year and ended Federer’s unbroken semi-final Major streak of 23.
This time, in less damp and heavy conditions, the superior Federer game and movement reasserted his dominance.
The third to reach the semi-final party was Djokovic who had perhaps the toughest opponent of the day in David Ferrer.
The No6 seed has looked as good in Madrid as at any time this year, finding remarkable power, speed and -his most valuable asset -desire to win in his bullish third-round match against Sergiy Stakhovsky.
He also had the upper hand over Djokovic when it came to clay: a 3-0 record. For him to make it four wins, though, Ferrer needed to find the tennis of his life against the man who no one has managed to beat in his preceding five and a half months or 31 matches.
And Ferrer came close to doing so, taking the only set off the No2 seed thus far in the tournament. Tactically, he has become more adventurous, and he attacked the net and took chances. It paid off, and he broke the Serb in all three sets, but Djokovic broke back twice in the first and did the same in the third. Ferrer, though, held his advantage in the second.
However, the accuracy of the Djokovic ground strokes, his unparalleled defensive skills and his newest attribute, an unwavering confidence, took their toll and he overcame Ferrer 6-4 4-6 6-3 for his 30th consecutive win of the year.
The surprise member of the semi-final Madrid quartet is the unseeded Tomaz Bellucci, who beat No7 seed Tomas Berdych in straight sets and impressive style.
Bellucci came into Madrid with some good clay results -a semi-final in Acapulco and quarter-finals in Santiago, Costa do Sauipe and, last week, Estoril.
These have clearly built great confidence in the tall Brazilian, and he brought the same powerful attack to Berdych that had pounded Andy Murray out the tournament. He did not face a single break point in his 7-6 6-3 win.
He remains positive about his chances: “I think I can beat any playerÃ¢â‚¬Â¦they are not invincible.” At the moment, it has to be said, his next opponent, Djokovic, looks just that.
Federer was more pragmatic about his chances of repeating his win over Nadal on the Manolo Santana court in 2009, a feat he achieved against a Nadal bouncing back from a four-hour spectacular against Djokovic the night before.
“I think this is a match that many fans and media want to see, especially here in [Nadal’s] home countryÃ¢â‚¬Â¦On clay, it’s obviously his territory a bit more.”
He’s not wrong. Nadal has improved with every clay match in every tournament since Monte Carlo and looked nothing short of superb in his quarter-final. There is little -even from the magic rackets of Federer and Djokovic -that looks capable of preventing him from lifting his 20th Masters trophy this weekend.