Familiar friends and foes on Friday: The U.S. Open men’s semis offer a feast

Weren’t we here a year ago at the U.S. Open?

Short answer: No – a year ago, the men’s semifinals would have been played on Saturday, and there would have been a lot less shade and wind protection available for Novak Djokovic, who will play his 2015 semifinal in much more comfortable conditions.

Long answer: Wait a minute – on many other levels, this DOES feel a lot like 2014. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have made their way into the semifinals, with neither Rafael Nadal nor Andy Murray in their paths. Most fans in New York are expecting and hoping for (emphasis on that last part) a collision of giants in the final. Marin Cilic is there in the semifinals, and he’s still being underestimated, just as he was 12 months ago. (Side note: I am one of the people doing the underestimating. I will not lie.)

A little more on that bit about the public hoping for the big showdown in the final: It’s been disappointed before. New Yorkers longed for a Federer-Nadal U.S. Open final, and in two consecutive years – if you can possibly believe that – the dream matchup on the big stage was one point away from happening… twice. All told, Federer had two chances in both 2010 and 2011 to meet his Mallorcan foil in Arthur Ashe Stadium, but Djokovic denied him on those four points and did not allow Federer to see any more match points. Federer and Nadal have still not met at the U.S. Open, one of the more remarkable avoidances in tennis history. It shows, though, that the public (casual sports fans mixed in with the diehards) has been disappointed a lot on semifinal day at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center in recent years.

This brings us back to the present moment, and a delicious pair of 2015 semifinals overflowing with storylines and improbable facts.

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It’s ridiculous in a certain sense: Semifinal number one on Friday pits two men who have won the same number of U.S. Open titles… but inhabit completely different universes in terms of tennis achievements.

Novak Djokovic is the best player in the world, the king of the Masters Series events, and the dominant force at the major tournaments right now. He’s playing for a lot of history in this next semifinal: Four major finals in a year (first time in his career); the chance to play for a third major title in a year (for the second time in his career) and his 10th overall major, which would dramatically heighten the odds that he can catch Rafael Nadal and maybe even Federer in major titles before his career is done. (#ATPLostBoys could be the portal through which Djokovic marches on a late-career road to glories that weren’t seriously considered a year ago.) A Djokovic title in New York will definitely change the discussion about his rapidly rising place in tennis history.

Then, on the other side of the net in Friday’s first semifinal, stands Marin Cilic, a man who has never won a Masters 1000 event and has not yet reached a second major final. (Djokovic will be playing for his 18th major final.) Cilic hasn’t exactly crashed and burned this year – a Wimbledon quarterfinal is nothing to sneeze at – but he has certainly not increased his profile or heightened his reputation in the sport.

Cilic remains conspicuously inconspicuous, noticeable by how quiet and unremarkable a figure he still cuts in the tennis world. He is a comparatively anonymous champion, one who has done exactly what he should have with an easy-bake, tasty-cake draw through the first five rounds… but is 0-13 in his career against Mr. Djokovic. It is hard to recall a previous instance in which a major tournament’s defending champion is more of an underdog and more in the background (as opposed to the forefront) than Cilic is right now. Djokovic is the one playing for the high stakes, but in terms of sizing up Friday’s match, it’s all about Cilic’s ability to show that he can once again bring a big game to a semifinal against a legend of the sport.

A year ago, hardly anyone gave Cilic a chance against Federer, and really, who would have felt that the collision was going to be particularly close? Sure, Cilic had dominated Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals of the 2014 U.S. Open, but that was Berdych, a player who is easy to write off. Federer, back in a U.S. Open semifinal after two years in which he failed to get that far, smelled the finish line. How was the story going to end? No one should pretend to claim that s/he saw that afternoon coming.

Cilic returned and pounded his groundstrokes better than he ever has in his life – that’s not an exaggeration. With easy and frightening power, Cilic took the racquet out of Federer’s hand in a dominant display the Swiss could only admire… and simultaneously lament. It was a performance straight out of the Marat Safin 2000 playbook against Pete Sampras in another late-stage U.S. Open match. A legend of the game with 14 or more major titles stood on the court… and could do nothing. His opponent played in the zone and stayed in the zone. Once in a great while, that sort of thing happens.

Can Cilic do the same thing against Djokovic? Once again, plenty of people (this writer very much included) are skeptical. However, what’s different this year is that if Cilic DOES author the upset, his career will deserve to be seen in a very different light. He’ll cease to be a one-hit wonder, and that means a lot when evaluating the whole of a career.

Djokovic-Cilic figures to end in one and only one way, but Federer could tell you: Beware of the foregone conclusion… and the No. 9 seed from Croatia.

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For all the storylines and pressure points involved in the first semifinal on Friday, the second one possesses genuine blockbuster status.

Can this be true for a matchup in which one player has won 16 matches and the other only three? Can this be so for a clash in which one player has won all 11 meetings on hardcourts? Can this be true for a meeting in which one player has won 15 more major titles and over 20 more Masters 1000 titles than the other?

Sure it can… which is why the showdown between Swiss buddies Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka is in fact so delicious. (Get your Lindor truffles and chew away…)

It’s as amazing as the fact that Djokovic and Cilic own the same amount of U.S. Open titles: Federer, enjoying a very strong summer on both lawns and hardcourts, might not be the favorite in this match. Oh, you could certainly make the case that he should be, and without even checking the betting markets (something I don’t do or feel the need to do), I’d reckon that he is the betting favorite here. However, solely within the realm of analysis, it’s more than a little valid to install Wawrinka as the choice in Friday’s match.

Wait, you say – Federer is 11-0 on hardcourts. This isn’t clay, where Wawrinka has scored all three wins over Fed. True enough. However, Federer and Wawrinka:

A) rarely meet at the majors (only four of their 19 meetings have occurred in best-of-five-set matches, and the two most recent meetings at majors were split, with Wawrinka winning the more decisive victory in Paris this past spring);

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B) have played on very even terms over the past few years, a marked contrast to the previous several years in their shared histories, when Wawrinka had plainly not become the player he is today.

This is what lies at the essence of the uncertainties surrounding Federer-Wawrinka: Stan The Man is still an erratic player, but that erratic quality now possesses a consistency and clarity which were previously less knowable.

Last year, when he bombed out in the first round at the French Open following his Australian Open title, Wawrinka gave the appearance of a player who was just going to be erratic, period. However, his next five major-tournament results have been a pair of quarterfinals (2014 Wimbledon and the U.S. Open), semifinal (2015 Australian Open), championship (2015 Roland Garros), and quarterfinal (2015 Wimbledon). Stan has already reached the semis in New York once again, and if he beats Federer, he will play for the third leg of the career Grand Slam on Sunday afternoon. Wawrinka has firmly validated the contention that he’s a big moment player, one who lives for the bright lights and has the combination of toughness and skill to satisfy his immense competitive hunger. If Wawrinka gets bored with Masters or ATP 500 events, he relishes the biggest tournaments, and it shows.

It’s quite revealing: If you were to stand up in a room right now and say that Wawrinka has just as good a shot as anyone else (Federer and Djokovic, specifically) to win this U.S. Open, not only would you NOT be laughed out of the room; a portion of that room would agree with you.

How quickly things have changed for Wawrinka, who – should he win this match against Federer – would merit very serious consideration as the second-best player in the world. Andy Murray has been the second most consistent player on tour this year, Federer a close third. Federer, though, has demonstrated complete ownership of Murray in high-profile situations. The discussion about the second-best player in the world has revolved around those two men in 2015.

If Wawrinka does beat Federer, however, he would become the only other man besides Djokovic to make at least two major finals this year. Wawrinka would be able to claim that he’s doing the kinds of things many people feel Murray should be doing. Wawrinka, by beating Federer on a non-clay surface and at a major other than the French, would rightly be able to claim that he’s the better player in important tournaments – maybe not the Geneva Open or the Masters or any other best-of-three-set event, but certainly where the lights shine the brightest. Big Moment Stan, should he capture this moment on Friday, will not change his full calendar of inconsistent results in 2015 or previous years. Yet, that inconsistency would continue to mean less and less in the bigger scheme of things. Another major final and another victory over Federer would cement Stan’s position as the Swiss player you – and Novak Djokovic – would rather not face at a major.

You can see why Wawrinka could be a favorite in this match. It’s part of why this contest means a lot to Federer, but that’s only a part of a bigger story.

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In his sterling career, Federer has made two major tournaments his own: Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. No man has won more Wimbledons than Federer (alongside Pete Sampras and, not to be forgotten, Willie Renshaw), with seven. In the Open Era, no man has won more U.S. Opens than Federer, who joins Jimmy Connors atop the list with five.

Yet, at Wimbledon, Federer has been able to maintain top-tier results. He’s reached three of the past four Wimbledon finals, all beyond the age of 30. He has lost two straight finals to Djokovic, but building a 10-0 record in Wimbledon semifinals has still improved his legacy at the big Dubya.

At the U.S. Open, however, five straight titles from 2004 through 2008 have been followed by a long dry spell — not just in championships, but finals reached. Federer has not been back to a final in New York since 2009, a fact which rates right up there in the “How in the name of Marc Rosset did that possibly happen?” derby with the fact that Djokovic has bagged only one U.S. Open to this point in his career. (Holy Slobodan Zivojinovic — how can that be true?!)

It’s not as though Federer hasn’t made a bold charge at the U.S. Open final over the years. He came within one point, twice (or four times, if you look at individual match points), of making another final. He played Cilic last year and entered as the heavy favorite. Yet, inspired play by his opponents (and a let-cord at 40-30 against Djokovic in 2011) kept him out of the grand finale in Flushing. Federer badly wants to return to a U.S. Open final — not only to back up what he’s done this summer, but to validate his No. 2 ranking and, most of all, show the tennis community that he can still go the distance at majors other than Wimbledon. It’s an important time to translate his high-level longevity into an important result.

If Federer wins on Friday, he can say that he’s had a generally successful U.S. Open, regardless of what happens in the final. If he loses, the loss will sting almost as much as the defeat against Cilic. It’s what makes this match so compelling: Federer, a man with more money (and more tennis riches) than whole kingdoms, feels the acute need to forge this one achievement, which would indeed mean a lot in terms of adding yet another happy chapter to this soaring post-2013 second renaissance. (The first renaissance was the 2012 Wimbledon championship just before turning 31.)

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A world No. 1 playing for a truckload of historical milestones.

An anonymous defending champion.

A late bloomer who could very realistically steal the show.

A fabled champion desperately trying to do something he hasn’t done in six years.

The ATP hasn’t been nearly as good as the WTA in New York. If Friday’s semifinals deliver the goods, however, not many people will focus on the first 11 days of the 2015 United States Open.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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