If yesterday’s quarter-final matches were high quality indeed, the ones played today will definitely be high voltage quarters. Starting at 4PM ET, tennis fans will be treated to what, on paper, will be the best quarter-finals this Masters 1000 could offer. If one of the matchups became quite redundant (and a bit of an ordeal to fans of one of the protagonists), it remains more open than usual. As for the other, we know it will be an intense fight, one that should leave us on the edge of our seats for a bit.
Roger Federer vs Juan Martín del Potro
The first quarter-final of the day will already be the fourth meeting this season between Roger Federer and Juan Martín del Potro. So far, the three meetings they had this season (Australian Open quarter-finals, Rotterdam finals, Dubaï semi-finals) all went the way of the Swiss, but the last of these meetings was really the tightest of the three, as neither man conceded their serve and both sets ended in tiebreaks.
Del Potro in constant improvement
In fact, del Potro progressed in each of these matches, even though the one in Rotterdam was a rather one-sided affair (and Delpo’s first final of the season) and we could see in Dubaï that he is getting much, much closer to Federer with each passing week. Del Potro’s game has been in constant evolution since his return last year, and it has progressed by leaps since the beginning of the season. For one, he is serving much better this week, for instance, than he did until Rotterdam, with the consequence that he was 10 consecutive sets without dropping serve (he dropped two service games to Denis Istomin on Wednesday, thus cutting the sequence).
Furthermore, we could see an increase in his confidence over the last few weeks, which showed in that Dubaï match (except when he tried to convert his lead into a set in the second-set breaker of his semi-final match against Federer), but in many aspects of his game in Indian Wells as well, particularly on the forehand side. Delpo has started to hit his forehand more freely and this choice weapon of his is getting really close to its level of 2009, when no player wanted to have to face it. Since the middle of last year, we can also see him come in more during matches, something that has been even more pronounced (and successful) since the beginning of the tournament.
There is only one negative point I can give, from an analytic point of view, and it is that, the Argentine is still lacking confidence when facing the top players, same as it was before near the middle of 2009, especially when it comes to Roger Federer. Whether it is belief that he is at the same level as the top 4, whether it is just Federer’s game, which he thinks it is (article in Spanish), there still is, in my mind, a click that hasn’t yet happened in del Potro. In 2009, part of this click was done when he came back from the brink of defeat, in Miami, and ended up triumphing against then no 1 Rafael Nadal.
What if today’s match proves to be the click necessary for him to believe he still can defeat Roger Federer? After all, despite a few glitches, he has the game to do so. Hopefully the belief that he can defeat him will come, as a win would, I think, give him the confidence boost he needs to get to the next gear and level. As I mentioned, we can very well see his confidence returning with the freedom with which he now unleashes the forehand and how well he is serving.
It’s a matter of time, which we can only, for his sake, hope it comes today.
Roger Federer vulnerable?
It certainly appeared so in his match against Thomaz Bellucci, Wednesday, as not only was Bellucci hitting and playing extremely well, but Roger Federer was also obviously not in his element. He admitted having been struggling with a virus since the beginning of the tournament, one that has been running in his family and of which both his wife and twin daughters suffered. Apparently, Roger was the one who was the least touched by it.
However, as we could see during the match, with both Mirka and the twins in much better shape (the first time we saw them in the tournament), their condition improved, while Roger’s virus just lingers, to the point where the Swiss mæstro admitted that he considered pulling out prior to his encounter with Bellucci. In fact, since the beginning of the tournament, he has barely practised, which gives another turn to the depth of his talent and resilience.
With yesterday’s day off, we can only hope that he had a little more time to recuperate. Until the first ball is played, the doubts will linger: is Federer vulnerable? However, if he was able to defeat his opponents the way he did sick, that should not make much of a difference in the outcome of the match, to me at least. After all, he was still able to find that extra gear against Milos Raonic and quite the same against Bellucci.
Really, today, it will be played more than ever in the head, that of del Potro. He has to believe that he can defeat Federer. If he does, he may very well emerge the victor. If not, it will be a perfect four for Federer in their meetings this year.
Rafael Nadal vs David Nalbandian
With all the physical issues he’s been through in the last few years, many forgot what a threat David Nalbandian can be to any opponent when he is in good shape. And in good shape, David Nalbandian definitely is. He took time between last season and this to recover from all his ailments and have a real and good pre-season, the first in many years, and came back in great form.
David Nalbandian in great shape
This great form showed in each of the matches he has played so far this season, and even more so in this tournament, as he defeated Tuesday his first top 10 player in almost two years. Wednesday, he did not start the match well against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but the more the match went on, the more we saw glimpses of top 10 David Nalbandian.
True, he was helped by Tsonga suffering from a major brain cramp at the time of serving out the match (and even having a match point), but this was enhanced by Nalbandian’s grit and game, when he started moving much better than he had most of the match, but also serving much, much better, which led to his second top 10 upset in as many matches. In the third set, the Argentine’s level of play let me believe he could then have beaten just about anybody.
Then again, this was his second long match in as many days and it’s a good thing for him that he had a day off before meeting with Rafael Nadal today, as even in great shape, he would have gotten to it more tired and might not have given the fight I’m sure he will give again today.
Because if there is one person who can defeat Rafael Nadal, it is an in-form David Nalbandian. And if he doesn’t win, he can come really, very close. I’m sure nobody has forgotten that match, three years ago, when Nalbandian had no less than five match points, all saved by Nadal, who finally emerged the victor with a third-set bagel:
A few months later, Nalbandian underwent hip surgery, but if a less in form Nalbandian can bring Nadal that close to defeat, an in-form one, a fitter one, definitely has more chances to win.
Closing out is an issue but
In each of his matches so far in the tournament, Rafael Nadal has had issues closing out sets and matches. Against Marcel Granollers and Alexandr Dolgopolov, particularly, it could have proved costly for the Spaniard but luckily never was, although it made those specific service games pretty nail-biting for his fans, I’m sure.
Against a solid returner like David Nalbandian, this could prove a little more costly, as Nalbandian is much more experienced than Granollers and Dolgopolov and, as I mentioned, a more solid returner. If Nalbandian serves well, these issues Nadal has had since the beginning of the tournament could end up being set/match turning points, which could quickly turn the tide in favour of the Argentine.
Nevertheless, Nadal’s game, except for these glitches, is extremely sharp, as usual. The World no 2 is thus in a very good position to, like every year since 2006, make the semi-finals, and likely the finals again this year.
Nevertheless, this should be a very high level match between these two “old rivals”, which should lead to an incredible amount of spectacular rallies, once again. Rafael Nadal does start as the strong favourite but jamais deux sans trois for Nalbandian?