One of the unique things about professional tennis is that the season essentially starts with its players on the biggest stage they’ll find all year. Sure, there’s an exhibition or tournament to be played beforehand, but the first time anything matters is when they step on that court in Melbourne. We go from having no idea of the state of the game to having a fully-constructed understanding in a matter of days – an understanding that the immediate future of the sport is very much still in flux.
That might seem a strange assertion when you look at the semi-final matchups and see three of the world’s top four players – and a fourth in Milos Raonic who has looked on occasion like he belongs there – but it’s hard to describe things any other way given their paths through the tournament so far.
On one hand, you’ve got Djokovic and Murray, who almost seem there by default. Neither man has played particularly inspiring tennis, with brief spurts of excellence overshadowed by real mediocrity. For Djokovic, the whole tournament has seemed like a slog – with his 100 unforced errors against Gilles Simon naturally standing out, and his only real saving grace being the final set against Kei Nishikori, where he once again found the ability to dictate on return of serve. Murray, on the other hand, has simply grinded out wins against opponents incapable of creating their own offense – his most concerning performance being an inconsistent three-setter against the one-note Bernard Tomic that saw him concede multiple service games – and will have his hands full adapting to Raonic or either of his potential finals opponents.
Funnily enough, it’s Federer and Raonic that are the two who, if you knew nothing about tennis prior to this tournament, would pick in a heartbeat to play each other in the final. The way Federer dispatched David Goffin and Tomas Berdych – regularly conjuring moments of attacking brilliance while proving steadfast in defence – would have you thinking he was something close to his prime, not over half-a-decade away from it. Raonic, meanwhile, looks like he’s finally utilising the tactics to suit his deadly serve and physical advantages, getting to the net with regularity and playing first-strike tennis from the back of the court. If you want to know just how well the Canuck is playing, all you need to know is his worst winners-to-unforced-errors count was 47-36 against Gael Monfils. Federer’s getting a lot of credit for the way he’s played through the first five rounds, but Raonic is equally scorching.
So right now you’re probably wondering why this means why this means the men’s game is in flux, and simply put, it’s because for as well as Federer and Raonic have played, Djokovic and Murray are still the rightful favourites to make it through to the final. There’s too much recent evidence against the former to back them. Can we really trust this Federer – who was beat into submission by Djokovic in every major match they played last year, or Raonic – whose nerves nearly bested him against Wawrinka, and has yet to had his new game tested by anyone with an above-average return-of-serve, to pull this off? What’s more, if the game wasn’t still searching for its next truly great talent, Murray – and Djokovic in particular – probably shouldn’t be in the draw given their earlier performances. The fact that the guy who gives the world no. 1 his biggest scare is a 31-year-old counterpuncher who’s never been ranked higher than 6 only tells us how desperately we need more transcendent young talent. And regardless of who wins it all, can you really see anyone outside these four lifting a major trophy in the rest of 2016?
Then again, maybe we’ve been hurt by the calendar. And having a major so soon in the year hasn’t given any up-and-comers the time to transform their improved tennis into match-winning form. Unfortunately we don’t have much to go on, and it’s hard to see anything different from exactly what we have right now in Melbourne.
Djokovic v Federer
I spent the last three rounds sitting courtside for Federer’s matches, and there’s no doubt he’s playing the best of anyone right now. But Djokovic is always a different story. In the quarters, Fed quickly put a stop to Berdych pounding his backhand with clever use of his slice to open up the court, something he won’t be able to do against Djokovic, which will make all the difference.
Murray v Raonic
Raonic does have multiple wins against Murray to his name, which makes him a value-bet for the punters, given his recent form. That said, it’s hard to ignore sets three and four against Wawrinka, and the way he faltered as pressure mounted. The Scot will bring that pressure from the start, and it will prove the difference in a hard-fought victory.
Djokovic v Murray