<
>

London title Roger Federer's to lose

LONDON -- When Andy Murray fell to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final, it hit him hard. Murray, who lost for the third time in a Grand Slam final without winning a set, slumped heavily until the spring.

When Roger Federer squandered a pair of match points for the second straight year against Djokovic in the U.S. Open at tennis' largest stadium, many wondered how he would react. After all, the defeat meant Federer, 30, who has nothing to prove in the game and a family to tend to, ended the campaign without a major for the first time since 2002.

Would he suffer the same fate as the Scot?

The answer has been a resounding no.

Federer has said on numerous occasions that he's a cool, relaxed character, and his 15-match winning streak since that emotionally charged Saturday in New York, collecting titles in Basel and Paris, proved it. He didn't let the result overly bother him, or at least that's how it's looked on the surface.

The Swiss is more experienced than Murray and, some would say, simply much better.

"It's amazing that he hasn't lost since the U.S. Open," Murray's former coach and current ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said in a phone interview. "I think in Roger's mind, this is really going to help him big time for [the Australian Open]. This is not an anomaly. If he can finish with what we'd call bowling a turkey, winning three tournaments in a row, that's just going to give him a world of confidence."

His chances increased substantially Friday evening, when a gutsy, resilient Tomas Berdych -- you couldn't say that about the Czech a year and a half ago -- rallied to overcome David Ferrer in three sets. It meant Federer wouldn't face Djokovic but rather the Spaniard. The maturing Berdych confronts ebullient Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the other semifinal.

Just what kind of performance Djokovic, eliminated with a 1-2 record in Group A, would have mustered is anyone's guess, but most were of the thinking the world No. 1 wouldn't have done much.

Djokovic appeared as cooked as a turkey on Thanksgiving in a loss to good buddy Janko Tipsarevic on Friday afternoon and said afterward he was mentally drained, so Berdych did him a favor by sending him into the offseason. He ends 2011 carrying a two-match losing streak, as well as an ailing shoulder.

He has good company on the sidelines. An injured Murray and an out-of-sorts Rafael Nadal won't feature this weekend, either, making Federer the only member of the big four to survive.

Still, the numbers suggest a less-than-100 percent Djokovic would have tested Federer, who crushed Nadal as part of a 3-0 record in Group B, more than Ferrer will. Ferrer is 0-11 against the 16-time Grand Slam champion and enters the encounter dispirited following the loss to Berdych. Federer and Ferrer are separated by a single spot in the rankings -- and a year in age -- yet in truth are miles apart.

"I will try to do my best," Ferrer said in his news conference. "I will try to fight a lot."

The no-nonsense, likable Ferrer sizzled in the opening set and a half Friday, ripping Nadal-like passing shots and bullying Berdych from the baseline. Uncharacteristically, he tightened up while serving up a break at 4-3 in the second set, failing to see out a 40-15 advantage. He added his serve deserted him.

Fans with tickets to Saturday afternoon's semifinal were probably willing Ferrer on, since Djokovic versus Federer was slated to be the opening singles tilt. As it turned out, it's Ferrer versus Federer.

Gilbert said Ferrer should glance at Russian Nikolay Davydenko for inspiration. Davydenko lost all 12 of his head-to-heads with Federer before finally triumphing at the World Tour Finals in London two years ago. Perhaps the quick turnaround will force Ferrer to forget about his collapse.

"Everything points to him having no shot, but look at the numbers with Davydenko a couple of years ago," Gilbert said. "If I was him, I'd pop in that Davydenko DVD and think, 'OK, here's a guy who was around my age and was an 0-for, and he got his first win.' And Ferrer is playing the best tennis of his career on faster courts. I have so much respect for what he's doing out there."

Berdych's long-awaited breakthrough came in 2010 when he advanced to his first major semifinal at the French Open, then first major final weeks later at Wimbledon. Although he didn't go as deep in any Grand Slam this term, he's been more consistent and playing his best tennis in the fall. He is, without question, competing better than ever.

"That's one of the aspects that improved in my game, and I'm able to fight back, win the tough matches," Berdych said in his news conference. "I'm happy for this improvement in my game. That's what I need. That was something that I was looking for."

After he blew a match point to Djokovic on Monday, it seemed this wasn't destined to be his week. That changed Wednesday, when he saved a match point against Tipsarevic, and Berdych took advantage of Ferrer's lapse to finish atop Group A.

Berdych upended Tsonga in their lone meeting in October. Tsonga, though, handed Federer his toughest outing in Group B and benefited, like Federer, from a day off Friday. It might make a difference. Berdych has contested a trio of three-setters.

A surging Federer, meanwhile, is fresh. And the clear favorite.


London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.