It is fitting that after so much drama in this year’s Australian Open that their should be a surprise line-up for the final stage of the men’s competition. The familiar sight of seeing the two best players in the world (yes, still and by quite a margin) Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is to be replaced by two other men for the first time since a resurgent Marat Safin denied Lleyton Hewitt a fairytale home Slam in the Australian Open centenary year. For three years the game’s giant duo have featured in a Slam final.
Sunday will see either unseeded revelatory Frenchman Jo Wilfred Tsonga or 3rd see ‘joker’ and of three Serbians to contest a final in the next few days Novak Djokovic still only 20 years old.
Nadal hasn’t really been playing at his most impressive since Wimbledon last year, having made a handful of finals and semi-finals in Tier I and II tournaments. He may be struggling with a foot injury which seemed to rear its head during the recent winter off-season and has lost in recent matches to lesser players and by heavy scores (Ferrer 6-3, 6-4 in Shanghai and Youzhny 6-0, 6-1 in the Chennai final).
His form in the open was solid rather than revolutionary. Tsonga however has been a true bolt from the blue. True, the Frenchman hasn’t come from nowhere, he was second only to Marcos Bagdhatis in the junior rankings in 2003. Two years of injury forced the man from Le Mans to make just four Grand Slam appearances until now. He has beaten world class players (Hewitt, Henman, Moya and Ancic) and in this tournament alone he has competently outplayed Andy Murray, Richard Gasquet and Youzhny.
The match against Nadal was an example of simply unplayable tennis. A series of searing ground strokes, booming serves, confident volleys and incredibly powerful smashes left the games’ most dogged fighter with no answer. It was a performance that was Sampras-esque in its style and relentlessness.
Djokovic who has played close to his best tennis consistency all fortnight was always going to prove too much against a Federer who in stark contrast, has not come close to finding his best form so far in 2008. Some early routs were deceiving as Jankko Tipsarevic proved in the third round, a match which went all the way and was won by Federer due to a step up of his game but his opponents slight fatigue. Djokovic had beaten Federer before that semi final and had significant chances in the final of the US Open – with breaks in each of the three sets. The Serb, like his fellow countrywoman Ivanovic at Roland Garros the same year, soon gave away these chances as the majesty of the occasion and the aura of the opponent crept in.
Federer was a shadow of his inspiring best; not once did he serve consistently enough to use it as a weapon and he seemed almost determined to throw in at least one out of character and often rank unforced error into almost every game. Unlike at Flushing Meadows Novak took the many chances and stayed calm and collected to take the match in three. The experts in varying degrees have denounced Federer’s greatness after this loss with some saying that it is the ‘beginning of the end’. Others, much more reasonably have merely suggested that we have now seen the last of the kind of ‘three Slams a year’ dominance that Federer has so emphatically displayed in the last three to four years.
I disagree with both theories. All it will take is one French Open title and three other majors – in a realistic time period of five years – for the man to become the unarguably best player that has ever graced the sport. He will do this and he will do it in a now much tougher ‘era’ thanks to players like Nadal, Djokovic and Tsonga to name but three.
The final itself would seem at first like a foregone conclusion; the Serb to take it in three or four as Tsonga will be the less experienced at such a level. But the 22 year old has shown a mental toughness that suggests this will be a closer fight. I expect him to remain intense and focused and just as he did against Murray and co throughout the tournament surprise his opponent so much that Djokovic will have to go the distance to triumph.