Commentary

Rafa and Djoker on collision course?

Underdogs Gasquet and Wawrinka are interesting, but big names are playing well

Updated: September 6, 2013, 5:48 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Over the past 12 months, the future of tennis has become its present. 

A year ago, neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal reached the semifinals of the US Open for the first time since 2002, and for the first time at any major since the 2004 French Open. Over the last year, time, injury and slippage have begun to open up the closed club that has been the final weekend.

David Ferrer reached the semifinals of three of the past five majors, and made his first final this year at Roland Garros. The last two majors have featured two first-time semifinalists -- Jerzy Janowicz at Wimbledon, Stanislas Wawrinka here in New York -- and this weekend, Richard Gasquet is in his first semifinal since losing to Federer at Wimbledon in 2007.

Yet despite these glorious surprises -- including Tommy Robredo beating Federer handily in the fourth round and Wawrinka doing the same to defending champion Andy Murray in the quarters -- it has been four years and 15 majors since tennis saw an underdog from a semifinal win a major, which is what Juan Martin del Potro did at the US Open in 2009 when he beat Nadal in the semifinals and Federer in the final.

With the exception of Del Potro's run, the true kings of the sport have been the only ones to wear the crown.

This year's semifinals -- Novak Djokovic versus Wawrinka, Nadal versus Gasquet -- pose the question of whether a del Potro moment awaits, or whether Gasquet and Wawrinka are merely appetizers before one of the best main courses in sports: Djokovic-Nadal VI in a Grand Slam final.

Djokovic vs. Wawrinka

Now that the surprise has worn off, maybe Wawrinka's win over Murray wasn't such an upset after all. Wawrinka certainly wasn't expected to destroy Murray in straight sets, preventing one of the best returners in the game from even gaining a single break point, but he was not expected to be on the other side of a dusting, either.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic, Stanislas Wawrinka
AP Photo/Andy WongStanislas Wawrinka proved closer to Novak Djokovic than many thought after their marathon match in Melbourne.
Wawrinka knows just how close how close he came to beating Djokovic at the Australian Open in a five-hour, five-set epic in which he lost the fifth set 12-10. He knows he was up 6-1, 5-2 in that match. He knows he was cramping in that exhausting fifth set. He had broken Djokovic early only to allow Djokovic to break back immediately. He walked off the court knowing he was not overmatched.

In the quarterfinals here against Murray, Wawrinka proved he had reason for confidence and proved Murray's supposed dominance over him was a false narrative. Yes, Murray had beaten him 8 of 13 times, but Murray had won 20 sets in those matches to 19 for Wawrinka. And Wawrinks had crushed Murray 6-1, 6-2 on the clay at Monte Carlo and had beaten him in their last US Open meeting, in 2010.

The Wawrinka game plan for Murray was similar to how he started against Djokovic in Melbourne: big serves and a dangerous blend of patience and aggression. Unlike big men such as John Isner or Milos Raonic, Wawrinka is willing to rally before unleashing a winner. Against Murray, Wawrinka was perfect, devouring second serves and maintaining a terrifying level of confidence to rip winners even as the tension of impending victory increased.

His quick strikes, especially off his one-handed backhand, flustered Murray just as they had done to Djokovic in Melbourne. Wawrinka battered Murray, and he knows he can hurt Djokovic.

The moments of discovery that tell us a good player is closer to being great than we might have thought can provide a springboard, as they have with Wawrinka and his major-league beatdown of Murray.

Still, Djokovic is certainly the favorite. He has beaten Wawrinka 11 straight times, and he is the best player in the world playing on his favorite surface. He entered the quarterfinals having lost only 22 games in the entire tournament, fourth-lowest all-time. Djokovic has had one dip in play the entire tournament, a 6-3 third-set loss to Mikhail Youzhny, but he immediately responded to by dropping a fourth-set bagel on the Russian.

He is playing not only to beat Wawrinka, not only for history, but for a chance either at Nadal or to reach a final Nadal could not. His competitiveness will win out. Probably.

Nadal versus Gasquet

In their first meeting, a second-round challenger match at St. Jean de Luz in 2003, Richard Gasquet took the first set from a 17-year old Rafael Nadal, ranked 46th in the world at the time, who then retired from the match.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal is playing some of the best hard-court tennis of his career at the US Open.
In their 10 meetings since, all on the ATP tour, Gasquet has not won. He hasn't taken a set from Nadal since the quarters in Toronto in 2008, a marathon 14-12 first-set tiebreaker. They've met at the US Open once, in 2009, and Nadal destroyed Gasquet 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.

Gasquet is a terrific shot-maker with an artful and sizzling one-handed backhand, but he has played consecutive five-setters against Milos Raonic in the fourth round and Ferrer in the quarters. He would appear to have no chance in this match against a determined, revived Nadal, who is 21-0 on hard courts this season, has dropped only one set thus far in the US Open, and is 17-3 overall in Grand Slam semifinals.

He is an even bigger underdog than Wawrinka, but Gasquet has rewritten some of his story during this tournament, having gone from child prodigy to a showman who wasn't quite fit enough or tough enough to win big matches, to now being a US Open semifinalist who to this point has answered every challenge he's faced.

His formula has been simple: to hit out.

For someone who does not hit many aces, and is not likely to rely on them against a great returner like Nadal, Gasquet has played big-winner, high-risk tennis. He has a high number of unforced errors to go with his flashy game, and against Nadal he is likely to increase his boldness. After all, Gasquet has nothing to lose, while the pressure to reach the final is squarely on Nadal.

Nadal, meanwhile, is playing his most aggressive, accurate hard-court tennis in years. Most impressive is his amazing percentage when he comes to the net. Nadal is an underrated volleyer and has used the tactic to a resounding advantage during the tournament. He has not dropped serve in the tournament, losing his only set thus far in a tiebreaker to Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Nadal and Djokovic are playing so well that their collision feels almost inevitable. Gasquet, however, is not to be underestimated.

He is a top-10 professional who is enjoying his own moments of discovery right now. He has proved capable of being a fighter even as the altitude of a match and a tournament thins, a departure from his reputation. He does not possess the kind of serve that will by itself unnerve Nadal, but Gasquet's tactics -- quick strikes, attacking the net, bold aggression -- could change the flow of play, especially if Nadal starts slow.

Gasquet is 0-10 against Nadal, but so, too, was Robredo against Federer. For this semifinal, however, there is no secondary narrative as there is with Wawrinka and Murray. A Gasquet victory, one that prevents a dream rematch of the Nadal-Djokovic finals here in 2010 and 2011, would be a major, major upset.

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