Roger Federer vs Novak Djokovic 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5
Federer came into this match as the only man to have beaten Djokovic in a Grand Slam this year, and looked fully confident to repeat the rare feat as he took a two sets to love lead against the Serb after a tight first set tiebreaker. Federer said before the match that he expected Djokovic to come out very aggressive but perhaps disarmingly, the world no.1 played peculiarly passive early on in the match and didn't seem to be striking the ball with the confidence and aggression we've been accustomed to seeing from him the past 9 months. Perhaps it was the sapping effect of having to summon his own energy without the support of a vociferously pro-Federer crowd, who very unfairly seemed adamant not to applaud his finest shots, or the result of a fatigue which has become more apparent this US Open, where he looked off key against countryman Janko Tipsarevic the round before. As the Swiss took control of the match 2 sets up, he looked confidently poised to kill the match.
However, Djokovic's new found champion mentality eventually shone through as he mounted an astonishing fightback, managing to reach the level which has seem him surrender only two losses this year and taking the next 2 sets as Federer's level dropped off. By the end of the 4th set, it seemed as if Federer had acknowledged that he was in a familiar nightmare, one which had seem him lose this year from 2 sets up against Tsonga, but also one which was a mirror image of his loss to Djokovic in the US Open last year. Federer looked determined not to let it happen again. The two men engaged in some bruising, breathtaking baseline rallies at the start of the 5th as they had done earlier, but at this point they looked both to be on the same level, whereas in the first 4 sets their levels fluctuated. When Federer broke to go 5-3 up, it seemed as if he was finally going to put the nightmare to rest, as he manufactured 2 match points. Djokovic had the look of a man staring down the barrel of the gun, as he had done a year ago, accepting his execution. Like last year, he hit out, hard, and crushed a bullet cross court return winner that left Federer stunned. After this single astonishing moment, Federer's belief appeared shattered as he dropped the game. It was the deus ex machina of the match, and a testament to the sheer bravery of Djokovic to repeat what he had done a year prior. He looked to the partisan crowd and lifted his arms to rouse their recognition, if not their support, and 4 games later was holding match points of his own. He closed out without too much additional drama what was arguably the match of the year, and certainly of the US Open.
Rafael Nadal vs Andy Murray 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2
This was the third meeting in a Grand Slam this year between Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, the Spaniard twice the victor at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Nadal had comprehensively beaten him on the terre battue, but Murray had come closer at Wimbledon, and on the great levelling surface of the hard courts, which is incidentally Murray's best surface, the Scot would seem to have a better shot than any time of the year to avenge his losing streak to Nadal dating back to the World Tour Finals last year. Entering the US Open, Nadal was a long way from the form which saw him lift the trophy for the first time last year, and much has been made of the 5 straight shattering losses he has taken from Novak Djokovic. Before the match, it would seem Murray had a prime opportunity to make his 4th Grand Slam final and have another shot at taking his maiden slam home. Underestimate Nadal at great peril, however. He was slowly building up momentum after crushing Andy Roddick in straight sets the round previous, and he carried this form forward to devastate Murray's dreams once again. There were no twists and turns as with the previous match between Federer and Djokovic, no heart stopping volte face, and like the exhausted Arthur Ashe crowd, it was a more sedate affair, especially after Nadal took the first two sets with ease. Apart from the fightback from Murray in the third set, it did not approach the drama which had ended around an hour earlier.
Nonetheless, the tennis was far from sedate, and at periods pound for pound matched the intensity and level of shotmaking in the prior match. Murray, as was expected, upped his aggression against Nadal, rushing the net, hitting his forehand bigger than usual and unleashing off his stronger backhand wing. It came at a price however, as Murray sacrificed the consistency linked to his counter-punching style with a myriad of unforced errors which sprayed commonly from his forehand side. Unfortunately for Murray, this shot is still his weakest and doesn't compare to the forehands of the rest of the top 3 players. Murray still needs to work on the forehand technically and learn to be able to consistently take the ball up the line for winners, and until then, he will struggle to beat Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer. For Nadal on the other hand, how well he hits his forehand is a barometer of his confidence, and with the most viciously top spun shot in the sport he produced a flood of winners and mind bending passing shots from that wing. Murray was left several times in disbelief after hitting what appeared to be winners or great approach shots, for them to be sent back, dismissively for proper winners.
Nadal played his best match of the US Open and of the season, and crucially appears to have recovered the form and confidence which saw him win his first US Open last year. He did whatever he wanted to with his forehand; he hit it inside out, up the line, loaded it with topspin and had the option of hitting flat; hit his backhand with more authority than he has done all year; opportunely approached the net; defended phenomenally, and proved once again that despite the semblances of mental fragility in the past few months, is still a mental giant. He'll need his legendary mental fortitude if he is to finally conquer Djokovic in the final, and provided he plays near to this form, who's say he won't solve the Novak enigma before the year's out ?
Murray on the other hand, should not be disheartened by another crushing loss to the Spaniard to this year. Although he could not sustain his level of aggression, and is still looking for the median point between controlled aggression and error strewn meltdown, he, like Rafa with Djokovic, should and will be searching for solutions of his own.