It's Sunday evening and it’s seven days into the 2011 Australian Open.
The spotlight remains focused on the rivalry for the ages. Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal are on course for a shoot-out on Sunday, the 30th of January.
That is, if the drama on court plays out as the script their fans envision.
The No.1 and No. 2 seeds have taken different routes to the much expected showdown.
Bernard Tomic surprised him in the third round, reeling off four games in a row to go 4-0 up in the second set. Nadal struggled to find his A-serve but Tomic’s inexperience and Nadal’s never-say-die attitude ensured that the blip was soon forgotten and buried.
Tomic will live to fight another day. He is Australia’s hope for the future.
The ability to take the ball early and his Eastern grip have been remarked upon. That he is still experimenting with his game and style of play was evident in some of his poor shot selection. He is a clean hitter of the ball on both flanks and left the US Open champion looking leaden-footed with strikes that seared the sidelines.
More about the Eastern grip: Vijay Amritraj, in his "Ask VJ" section, mentioned that in his heyday, players preferred the Continental grip. Modern players use the Western grip which holds the racket much more lower than the handshake that sums up the Continental.
The Eastern style allows players to hold the racket, top-and-over making it ideal if you intend to meet the ball early. It is not suited for low-lying balls.
For Tomic, it seemed the ideal way to play, taking the ball nice and high at around waist height and dispatching it to the nether regions of the court.
More about the various forehand grips here. I do not profess to be an expert on the game nor a master on the court. But I confess to picking up the art of a kick serve from Jeff Cooper’s slow motion replays.
But I digress.
Nadal’s form sends out an ominous warning to his opponents.
Federer, on the other hand, has so far dropped three sets in his journey to the quarter-finals. Gilles Simon surprised him in the second round turning an anticipated easy three-set victory into a five-set thriller.
Xavier Malisse caused him some problems in the the third round before Federer broke his spirit.
Tommy Robredo, one of the rare Spaniards who employs the classic style of play, pounced on one lousy service game from the Swiss maestro to pocket the second set in the fourth round.
Federer’s cloak of invincibility is fraying at the edges,almost threadbare. His aura has been punctured way too often in the recent past. His opponents have benefited by playing the ball,not the antagonist.
The meeting between the top two players may not occur.Nadal can get there but Federer will not. The difference between the two—at this Open—is that Rafa finds a way to win despite losing his service game. Federer struggles a lot more.
The other three contenders in the wings—Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Robin Soderling—have a point to prove.
Djokovic has dropped just one set on his way to the quarters to Croat Ivan Dodig in the second round. He, like Nadal, has benefited by having one opponent—Victor Troicki— retire.
He next faces Wimbledon 2010 finalist, Tomas Berdych.
Andy Murray has gone through Karol Beck,Illya Marchenko and Guilermo Garcia-Lopez without dropping a set. He takes on Jurgen Melzer in the fourth round; a victory sets up possibly a titanic battle against Robin Soderling.
The fourth-ranked Swede broke no sweat dispatching Potito Starace,Giles Muller and Jan Hernych for a total of nine sets in three matches.
And a tricky encounter awaits in the fourth round in Alexander Dolgopolov, the Ukrainian who ended Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s dream of reprising his 2008 run.
The stage is set for the grand finale.
May the best man win.