It's almost the final four we expected: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray. Of the vaunted "Big Four," only Rafael Nadal failed to make the semifinals here at Wimbledon this year. When one of them goes down, the others pick up the slack. The last time fewer than three of the ATP Big Four made the semifinals of a major was way back at Roland Garros in 2010, when Nadal romped to the title. With three of the top four in the world in the semifinals, it seems odd that we could have a surprise champion, but we could. Neither of the men on the bottom half of the draw, Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, were truly considered championship favorites, except in particularly hopeful quarters of Great Britain or France, but one of them will be in the final and in with a chance to claim the title on Sunday. So who'll have Breakfast at Wimbledon on Sunday? Read on:
(1) Djokovic v. (3) Federer
Unlike the Radwanska/Kerber ladies' semifinal where we're working with small sample sizes, we've seen this matchup before. 26 times in fact Djokovic and Federer have stood across the net from each other in a tour level match. Since Dubai in 2007 every one of those meetings, 22 if you're counting, were played in either the semifinal or final of a tournament. We've said it before, we'll say it again. The consistency of the very top men is remarkable.
The World No. 1 and defending champion has been on fire this fortnight. After a relatively tepid tour at Roland Garros, Djokovic seems to be channeling his days as Robo-Nole in this tournament. He throttled former No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero in his opener, 3, 1 and 3, then stared down fiery American Ryan Harrison in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 showdown. A late first set lapse against 28th seeded veteran Radek Stepanek forced Nole to play four sets, but those last three; won 2, 2 and 2 were telling. Viktor Troicki, who has never played well against his countryman, continued that streak, getting demolished in 80 minutes. 31st seeded Florian Mayer, the surprise quarterfinalist, lasted 25 minutes longer and won two more games than Troicki, but was still summarily dismissed and outclassed by his opponent. To say Federer will be a step up from his competition to date would be an understatement.
For his part, the six-time Wimbledon champion Federer seemed to punish Spaniard Albert Ramos in the first round for all of his country's sins against him, 79 minutes, 1, 1 and 1. He also made short work of Fabio Fognini before playing four tough sets against 29th seed Julien Benneteau in the third round. We say a tough four sets because after losing a fourth set tiebreak (in which he was two points from the upset), Benneteau simultaneously cramped and wilted against a jailbroken Federer in the fifth. Xavier Malisse pushed Federer to four sets in a match where the Swiss took treatment for a back injury and admitted to being "scared" about his physical state. The ensuing quarterfinal against Mikhail Youzhny, though, was vintage Federer. An hour and a half, no fuss, no muss, no sign of the bad back.
As Federer's back injury comes and goes, a lot of this semi will hinge on whether Federer's operating at near optimal health. If he isn't, against Djokovic, it will be a whitewash. Assuming Federer is healthy, there is an interesting quirk in an otherwise comprehensive head-to-head picture, Djokovic has never met Federer at Wimbledon, or on grass. Centre Court has always been where Federer plays his best tennis. If he's serving well and hitting his spots, his anticipation and ability to take advantage of the nuances of the grasscourt tennis will serve him well. Federer may prove a tougher test on this surface than Nadal did last year. On the other hand, what Federer hasn't been this fortnight is consistently brilliant. That's exactly what Djokovic has been. With his fluid movement, unshakeable faith in his game and the momentum in the head-to-head, Djokovic can frustrate Federer, even here.
Winner: N. Djokovic
(5) Tsonga v. (4) Murray
If we could suggest a parody movie title for this match, it would be "There Will Be Nerves." Despite the caliber of player in the other men's semifinal, Tsonga and Murray may prove to be the more electric tennis. The head-to-head is pretty straightforward, five wins to one and both matches on grass, in favor of Andy Murray, but let's be honest, this isn't any other match. This is the Wimbledon semifinals, this one counts.
To say Murray has been here before would be a bit of an understatement, this will be the tenth major semifinal for the Almost Great Scot. He was expected to be tested off the bat at the Championships, facing Nikolay Davydenko in the first round, but he responded with a 1, 1 and 4 beatdown of the Russian ex World No. 3. Nothing got easier for Murray from there, while the specter of Nadal was eliminated from view as of the second round, for that to mean anything, Murray had to get through the gauntlet of Ivo Karlovic, Marcos Baghdatis, Marin Cilic and David Ferrer to reach the semifinals; all but Cilic took a set.
Not that life was easier for Tsonga, he commenced his bid for the title against a man who had already done that work, 2001 champion and former World No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt whom he bundled back off to Oz, 3, 4 and 4. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez pushed Tsonga, taking a first set breaker before falling in four. Lucas Lacko fell 4, 3 and 3; but then 10th seeded American Mardy Fish was inches away from a mild upset of the big Frenchman, keeping him on court for over 3 hours in an electric four set tussle. Philipp Kohlschreiber, in his first major quarterfinal benefitted from a dip in form to take a set before ultimately capitulating in four allowing Tsonga through to his fourth major semifinal, his second in a row at Wimbledon.
Both men come into this match wanting to go one, if not two, better than their best prior result at Wimbledon. For Murray, although he's reached finals on the Australian and American hardcourts, there's no tournament win that would better cement his legacy than one on the grass of Wimbledon. The British press and the rest of the populace will be breathlessly awaiting the outcome of this match, likely both cheering and jeering Murray all the way. Ivan Lendl mentioned cocooning Murray, trying to keep him away from the press, the internet, the hubbub, etc., keeping him focused on one set, one match at a time. Tsonga doesn't have near the pressure. At his home major, he declared that no Frenchman had a chance of winning it this year. He could make the same declaration of the Brits if he can bring his electric game to a boil on Centre Court. Both men could use this match to burnish their sterling, but still-yet-unfulfilled careers. The match will turn on who handles the pressure better. We predict twists and turns and ultimately we predict...
Winner: A. Murray