Roger Federer is going to beat Novak Djokovic Friday in the French Open semifinals.
The washed-up old guy is going to end the never-ending streak, beat the unbeatable player. He is going to ruin the coronation that everyone thought this tournament was all about, and remind people that he’s still here, still on the mountaintop.
This is Fab Friday at Roland Garros, as the world’s top four men’s players are meeting up. First, it’s Rafael Nadal against Andy Murray. Murray has been playing on a sore ankle, and Nadal finally found his mojo in the quarterfinals. I’ll take Nadal.
But why Federer, when Djokovic has surpassed him and keeps looking stronger and stronger while Federer is starting to show age? Well, to me, everything is lining up perfectly for Federer. Every Federer flaw is negated, every strength enhanced. The predicted heavy winds, the new Babolat ball, the buildup, the slow clay. It all adds up on Federer’s side. Plus, Djokovic has to lose sometime. Plus, Federer has won the French before. Plus. . .
There is still the chance that Djokovic will simply power Federer off the court, push him backward. I just don’t think that’s going to happen. Here are four reasons why:
1) Pressure. It’s on Djokovic now. Federer has played his usual mind games by pointing that out, too. The No. 1 ranking goes to Djokovic for the first time if he wins this match. The winning streak closes in on the record. Federer? He has already proven all he needed to here. He’s still the third best player, not just riding a high ranking based on old computer points.
He has skated for two weeks, too. It’s the first time at a major in more than a year that no one has asked him what’s wrong with him? Meanwhile, he has clearly been working on his backhand, which now looks less jittery. It has been smooth and strong.
2) Gameplan: In the past few weeks, since Djokovic became invincible, the top players who aren’t afraid of him have been searching to make a new book on how to beat him. Last month in Rome, Murray lost the first set to Djokovic easily, and then started mixing up paces. That threw off Djokovic, who had to go all the way to a third-set tiebreaker to win. Next, Nadal tried moonballs as a test to see what might work in Roland Garros. And at Roland Garros, Juan Martin del Potro tried to out-slug Djokovic at first, but it didn’t work. Then, Delpo also started mixing up paces, crushing some, floating others right to Djokovic. It worked like a fastball pitcher finally mixing off-speed pitches. They make the fastball looks a whole lot faster. Del Potro won the second set and had the momentum, but that match stopped for darkness.
During Djokovic’ winning streak, Federer has tried to step close to the baseline and bash back at Djokovic. It’s what he has needed to do against most players. But it goes against what comes naturally to Federer. This time, I think Federer will mix things up. He can do it better than anyone. Djokovic is a timing animal, and Federer should know by now to mess up his timing.
3) Wind: Federer likes it. Timing animals don’t, especially ones with high serve tosses. Players complained about heavy winds at the U.S. Open last year, and Federer explained that he enjoys it. “Yeah, I do by now, yeah. Because I see it as a challenge and I see it as an opportunity to play differently. . .’’ he said. “I used to dislike it so much that I’m on the other side now. I was able to turn it around and kind of take enjoyment out of playing in the wind, actually.’’
Federer said he used to hate wind, but then decided that if he wanted to be the best, he would have to know how to play in all conditions. No surprises. So he practiced in high winds whenever the chance came up. Then, it became a mental thing.
“You know, I’ve played in such strong winds; I’ve practiced in such hot conditions,’’ he said. “Whatever you throw at me, I can do it. I mean, obviously, if it’s snowing and tough, then it gets a bit different. I haven’t had that yet, so I guess I would freak out when that starts happening.’’
There is no snow in the forecast.
4) Flaws negated: Federer has three developing flaws: He’s half a step slower than he used to be; he gets tense under pressure, and he can be pushed backward with that one-handed backhand and his old, flexible racquet. The slow red clay allows him a chance to catch up to the ball, giving him back some of his lost speed. And even though the tournament is using the new harder, faster ball, it is still slower than a hard court. That slows things down, making it hard to push him backward. As for the pressure, I already said: It’s on Djokovic.
By the end of the day, the next stage of the Federer-Nadal rivalry will be set for Sunday’s final. Unless it snows Friday. Then my predictions are off.