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Wednesday, January 25, 2012
The big four in the final four once again

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

The gulf between the haves and the have-nots of men's tennis has never been vaster.

Sure, Tomas Berdych took a set off Rafael Nadal in their quarterfinal match -- but he's ranked No. 7 among ATP World Tour players. At the same time, Juan Martin del Potro, the No. 11 player, got skunked by Roger Federer, a man he beat two years ago for his only Grand Slam singles title.

Federer and Nadal will meet Thursday for the 27th time in their spectacular rivalry, quite possibly the best in tennis history. On Wednesday, the other two members of the big four -- Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray -- booked their passage for an Australian Open semifinal.

No. 1 Djokovic took care of the pesky No. 5 David Ferrer 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-1. Earlier, No. 4 Murray handled Kei Nishikori, the flashy 22-year-old from Japan, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. The big four have now won a collective 57 sets Down Under -- and lost only three.

Afterward, Djokovic said he was looking forward to the Federer-Nadal confrontation.

"I will enjoy it from my couch," he said. "They are two of the four or five greatest players to play the game. It's the top four players [in the semifinals]. It's great for the game and the tournament."

If it all feels vaguely familiar, that's because it is. It's the third time in the last five majors -- and the second in a row -- the same four men are playing for a spot in the finals. With all due respect to the Occupy Wall Street movement, these guys are clearly the 1 percent; lately, the other 99 percent hasn't made much of an impression on them. The only two men to break a hold on the monopoly in that time are Ferrer, who beat Nadal to reach the semifinals in Melbourne a year ago, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a winner over Federer at Wimbledon.

Djokovic and Murray, who clash Friday at 3:30 a.m. ET, have been the most consistent, making all five of the recent Grand Slam semifinals.

Murray sounded happy not to be facing Nadal.

"I pretty much drew to be in Nadal's half, I mean almost every Slam," Murray said. "I can't remember the last time I wasn't in his half of the draw. It doesn't make a huge difference because Novak's obviously playing great tennis."

Said Djokovic, "You can feel he's physically fit and he has Ivan Lendl in his corner. He wants to win his first Grand Slam."

David Ferrer
David Ferrer fought hard, but it wasn't enough to take out Novak Djokovic.

With all the attention focused on the 30-year-old Federer and the injuries plaguing Rafa, Djokovic has whistled through the draw in relative obscurity. This is surprising, because he's the top seed looking for his fourth major in five tries, a man who has now won 30 of his last 31 major matches and 12 straight in Melbourne. Only five of ESPN.com's 11 experts picked him to win, but the oddsmakers who make a living figuring out these sorts of things made him a substantial favorite. If you bet $1 on Djokovic before the tournament, a victory would net $2.35. By contrast, Federer ($4.5), Murray (6.5) and Nadal (7.5) are far darker horses.

Certainly, part of the general skepticism is due to Djokovic's fractured finish to the 2011 season. He is merely 11-4 since last year's U.S. Open -- a record that pales in comparison to the other semifinalists. Federer, for example, is a scintillating 24-0. It's almost like there is a collective amnesia regarding his three major victories last year. That's not how it feels to Djokovic, though.

"I'm going to experience lots of, let's say, expectations and pressure of being a top player this year as long as I'm there," he said after his fourth-round match. "It's normal to expect that in most of the matches that I play I will be a favorite. I will be expected to win comfortably.

"I think I started off well. I think physically, mentally I'm motivated, physically I'm fresh; I'm very well-prepared. I'm playing really good tennis."

Going in, Djokovic knew that Ferrer would be a tough out. The 24-year-old Serb failed to convert his first six break point opportunities but finally cashed No. 7 in the fifth game of the first set, the only service break in the frame.

Djokovic actually served for the second set but was broken when he missed a forehand. At that point, Djokovic resembled the old Djoker: breathing hard, laboring physically with what looked to be a minor left leg injury. When Ferrer took a 4-2 lead in the tiebreaker, you got the idea that if he could win the set, the match might be his. But it was Djokovic who proved stronger, mentally and physically. He won the last five points with two forehand winners and three uncharacteristic errors from Ferrer.

Ultimately, Djokovic found the confidence he worked so hard to construct in 2011. Ferrer, a counterpuncher with hard-court sensibilities, just doesn't have the firepower to hurt Djokovic; after eight wins in 2012, this was his first loss. For Djokovic, it was his 399th career match win and his seventh consecutive appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal.

"After a couple of games, I was feeling, 'This is going to be a long night,'" Djokovic said of the 2-hour, 44-minute match. "I was lucky to get out of the second set. You have to hang in there. I definitely wasn't feeling fresh. It was a big mental advantage to win that second set."

Djokovic leads the head-to-head 6-4 -- including last year's straight-sets win in the Aussie final -- but Murray has won four of the past six matches.

"I've always liked playing against him," Murray said. "I'd like to get the chance to play him again. It would be a good marker to see how I've improved since last year."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.