Every spring, as sure as the sun rises, Rafael Nadal's on-court wizardry blossoms on the red dirt. For Roger Federer it is the soothing green lawns of Wimbledon that always seem to perpetuate the notion that his talent is timeless. And, as is being proved this August, the hard courts is where Novak Djokovic dominates.
After easily taking apart Frenchman Richard Gasquet in last week's Masters event in Toronto, Djokovic is again in the final of a Masters hard court event, this time in Cincinnati. On Saturday, Djokovic demolished an ailing Juan Martin Del Potro, 6-3, 6-2. On Sunday, Djokovic will meet his great rival Federer, who easily dispatched his compatriot Stan Wawrinka, 7-6, 6-3 in a pedestrian victory.
Speaking of Del Potro, it appears that his decision to play both Masters hard court events right after a grueling Olympic performance may indeed have been a mistake. As I had feared when I wrote about this such issue last week, it appears that Del Potro's nagging wrist injury has resurfaced and there's already some talk that he'll not play at the U.S. Open. Even if he were to play, it's doubtful he'll be in top form. With Nadal already out of the draw, a less-than-healthy Del Potro will make the men's tourney a degree or two less compelling.
But back to Djokovic. One needs to examine only one stat to appreciate his superior play on the hard courts; Djokovic has won 60 of the last 66 breaks points he's faced on hard courts. That is simply extraordinary. He's also won the last three hard court Slams titles - the 2011 Australian Open, 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 Australian title. While his play thus far in 2012 hasn't come close to the historic standard he set in 2011 - and no one would have predicted he'd repeated such a phenomenal year - it appears that the Serb's game is rounding into form just at the right time. And if Djokovic were to triumph again in New York, then he'd clearly be the best player in the world two years running.
While Sunday's match will not necessarily portend what will occur in Flushing a week from now, it will nonetheless be a an interesting showcase between the two best players in the world, with Federer now guaranteed to be the top seed at the Open, by virtue of his reaching Sunday's final in Cincinnati. And Federer likely still has a few nightmares about his losing match points in consecutive years on the hard courts at the U.S. Open during semifinal clashes with Djokovic.
What will be most interesting to watch during Sunday's match will be how Federer serves to Djokovic. Djokovic, owner - by far - of the best return in tennis, has been able to control his matches with Federer with his return the last couple of years. Federer would be wise to serve aggressively into Djokovic's body and then out wide to the forehand. Djokovic's backhand side, as it always has been, is still the more consistent and lethal stroke. It's difficult to force the issue against Djokovic because he's such a brilliant defensive player. But having said that, the variety of shots Federer possesses is far above anyone else and he'll need to use his entire repertoire to beat Djokovic. Sometimes, over the last year, in his losses to Djokovic, Federer was too content to hit away from the baseline.
For Djokovic, there are fewer variables to discuss. Being that his major strengths are his physical advantage - most apparent in his lateral movement - and his defense style, the match will depend more on what Federer does. But the one area that Djokovic still has lapses is with his serve. Being blessed with his superlative returning skills somewhat mutes his inconsistent serve, as it often seems he always counters being broken by breaking his opponent immediately. Whereas Federer has never been an aggressive returner, he is more in the mold of his idol Pete Sampras, mostly content to chip the ball back to start a rally. I’ve often wondered why Federer doesn’t take even more chances with second serve returns. If Djokovic is having one of his subpar serving afternoons, Federer would benefit greatly by surprising Djokovic with some powerful returns, especially on his forehand side.
The Cincinnati tourney, which is also the oldest tennis tournament in the United States, dating back to 1899, is by no means a predictor of U.S. Open success. Only seven times over the last 40 years has the winner in Cincinnati gone on to claim the Open (including Federer in 2005 and 2007). Sunday’s Federer-Djokovic encounter also marks the first time since 1988 (Mats Wilander vs. Stefan Edberg) that the top two ranked players in the world will meet in the final.