No matter what, great final awaits
In other words, after Friday's men's singles semifinals, there is no scenario in which a bad finals will emerge. Some might be better than others, but each is compelling in its own right. The best of the best, in order:
1. Novak Djokovic (1) versus Andy Murray (2): The dream matchup. The two best players in the world playing one another for the third time in the past four majors. There is a paper-thin margin between the two players, if any at all. It would be fitting that for Murray to win the major he covets most, he must go through the best.
2. Jerzy Janowicz (24) versus Djokovic (1): The biggest server in the tournament against the best returner in the game. The upstart looking for his first major in his first final against the best player in the world.
3. Juan Martin del Potro (8) versus Murray (2): Two players looking for their second major, and the first time in his career when Murray would be the decided favorite in a Grand Slam final (at Wimbledon, no less). Cue up the Fred Perry errata.
4. Janowicz (24) versus del Potro (8): The all-underdog final. The first between players both out of the top five since 1996, when Richard Krajicek defeated Mal Washington. It would be a match a rising star against a former US Open winner. A Janowicz-del Potro final would also represent the culmination of "big man tennis," as players 6-foot-8 versus 6-foot-6 would make for the tallest final in history.
To reach one of these scenarios, two semifinal matches need to be played. Here is a look at both:
Novak Djokovic (1) versus Juan Martin del Potro (8)
To reach his first Wimbledon semifinal, del Potro has controlled and unleashed the biggest forehand in the game with frightening results. He powered through David Ferrer in the quarters, a player he had never beaten on grass and whom he was 2-6 against lifetime. Del Potro was never expected to reach the semis, especially not after suffering a left knee injury in his third-round match against Slovenia's Grega Zemlja and then crashing to the grass with a gruesome hyperextension of the same knee five points into the quarterfinals. Not known as one of the tougher players on tour, del Potro is rewriting his script during this tournament. Ever since his wrist injury three years, ago del Potro has been the wild card of the top 10. In his career, he has won as many majors (one) as Murray, yet is not spoken of in the same category. Part of the reason is Murray's consistency as a top player, while del Potro has simply not put together the kind of year that would mark him as a perennial major threat. Beating Djokovic and reaching the final would change that narrative dramatically.
Meanwhile, Djokovic is second to Murray only in terms of the pressure on him to win. Djokovic has played here with a grim purpose, aware that he is the best player in the world but that his major count must rise in order to stand on the same podium as the greatest who ever lived.
Both players are playing terrifically, and it appears that del Potro's injury did not slow him against Ferrer. Djokovic, however, is not Ferrer. Djokovic will test del Potro's movement and is one of the best returners in the game, while del Potro has only had his serve broken twice in the tournament.
On the other hand, Djokovic has been vulnerable. A more accurate Tomas Berdych could have put him a two-sets-to-none deficit during their quarterfinal match, but part of winning a Slam is the ability to be tougher in the toughest moments. Djokovic often seems to be that guy.
When the two played in the semis on the hard court at Indian Wells, it was the massive, flat del Potro forehand that flustered Djokovic, who had been riding an Australian Open title and a 22-match win streak. Djokovic won the first set, but lost the match 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. Del Potro was actually down 3-0 in the third, but came back, a sign of his own toughness. He'll have to beat Djokovic again to win his first Wimbledon.
Andy Murray (2) versus Jerzy Janowicz (24)
"Pressure," John McEnroe said last week, "only comes when you think there's a chance you could lose." In his quarterfinal against Fernando Verdasco, Murray was smothered by pressure, losing the first two sets to Verdasco, a talented but certainly not transcendent talent. These days, Murray only seems to lose to the very top players. He's won his last 16 matches on grass and 22 of his past 23, the only blemish being last year's Wimbledon final loss to Federer.
However, the last time Murray was healthy and lost on one of his two best surfaces was at last year's Paris Masters, when unknown Jerzy Janowicz beat him in three sets 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-2. Janowicz had taken the tournament by storm, blasting 140-mph serves and following them up with buttery drop shots. It is a similar formula that has the young phenom on the cusp of a Grand Slam final. Murray was unhinged against Verdasco, looking in the first two sets like the old, crotchety and annoyed Murray who allowed the downturns in a match to derail him. Over the final three sets, when he made his victorious charge, Murray played as a champion, convinced of his will, of his fitness and of his shots. He was tested over five sets and found a way.
Murray was also helped, it must be added, by a simultaneous lack of belief, fitness and focus from Verdasco, whose shots in the fifth set lacked accuracy and purpose. Janowicz is not Verdasco. He has a massive serve that has not yet wilted under pressure. The contrast will be terrific, considering that Murray, like Djokovic, is one of the best returners in the game and Janowicz is a massive server. Big servers have had their wills and games broken by great returners (see Ivan Dodig versus Ferrer) in this tournament. Janowicz will have his resolve tested against Murray, who is again so close to a title that pressure is as much an opponent as the player against whom he is competing.
Maybe Verdasco did not believe that he could win. But what makes this semifinal so compelling is that Janowicz, if the moment does not become too big for him, knows he can win this match. Wimbledon, more than any other venue in the world, rewards a big server. The British tabloids may have given Murray the golden ticket to the final, but don't be so sure.