Australian Open 2013: Djokovic, Federer, Murray and margin for error

Clive Brunskill

In a sport with almost no margin for error, Novak Djokovic dominated David Ferrer in every facet of the game in the first semifinal of the 2013 Australian Open. On Day 12, Roger Federer and Andy Murray battle to face Djokovic for the title.

Fifty-six. That's the percentage of points Novak Djokovic won in 2011, the year he won 43 straight matches and 64 of his first 66. In 2007, when Roger Federer won three of four slams for the last time, he won 55 percent of all points.

Think about that for a moment. Over the course of an entire year, Federer and Djokovic, at their peaks, basically figured out how to win 11 of every 20 points. That means they also lost nine of every 20. Over a long series of rallies, service winners, etc., a single point every few minutes makes the difference between average play and the elitist of the elite. Figure out how to win 12 of every 20, and you'll win every match, 6-2, 6-2.

Only in tennis and presidential elections can 55 percent be considered dominant.

The margin for error in tennis is so incredibly, infinitesimally small. It seems a sport ripe for upsets, even in a best-of-five-sets situation. That the same men reach the promised land every year is staggering. But here we are. You have to go back to the 2010 U.S. Open, 10 slams ago, to find a truly odd name in a men's slam semifinal. That year, 12th-seeded Mikhail Youzhny benefited from a third-round upset of Andy Murray to ride into semis, where he was quickly disposed of by Rafael Nadal. In all, since 2010 Wimbledon, here is a list of the men who have made a slam semifinal:

  • Novak Djokovic (11)
  • Andy Murray (9)
  • Roger Federer (8)
  • Rafael Nadal (7; he has also missed the last two)
  • David Ferrer (4)
  • Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2)
  • Tomas Berdych (2)
  • Youzhny (1)

That's it. The top seven players in the world have claimed 43 of the last 44 semifinal spots (and the lone outsider was still ranked in the Top 12), and the top four have claimed 35. In a sport where winning one more point for every 20 played makes all the difference, life begins at 30-all, but the same players survive, over and over again.

And, of course, Djokovic has reached each of the last 11 semis. He has missed just two finals in that span, and he claimed his finals berth at the 2013 Australian Open with an absurdly dominant 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 win over Ferrer on Thursday. Against one of the fastest, best defenders in the world, Djokovic did more than just control the game; he dominated on every level. In a sport where 55 percent is dominant, he won 67 percent of the match's 126 points, 91 percent of his first-serves, 79 percent of his second-serve points, and 70 percent of Ferrer's second-serve points. He hit almost three times more winners (30 to 11) with half the unforced errors (16 to 32). He got seven break points and won all of them; Ferrer did not get a single break opportunity. The whole match took 89 minutes. Ferrer afterward: "I didn't have any chance to win tonight."

Djokovic treated Ferrer, a man who had won 14 of his last 16 Aussie Open matches, like a qualifier. Now he awaits one of two familiar foes in the finals.

There is only one marquee matchup on Day 12 of the Open, but it is enormous: No. 2 Roger Federer v. No. 3 Andy Murray. Few individual rivalries have seen more twists and turns than Roger-Muzza. In the early stages of his career, Murray saw a strange level of success against Federer, taking six of his first eight matches versus the most successful tennis player of the modern era. Federer won the one that counted the most in that span -- a straight-set win in the 2008 U.S. Open finals --- but Murray's defensive style flustered Federer in a way that almost no other could.

Through the latter stages of 2009-10, however, Federer turned the tables. He won the final two matches of 2009, then took out Murray, again in straight sets, in the finals of the 2010 Australian Open. Then Murray won the next two matches rather easily. Then Federer won the next three. And Murray the next two. And Federer the last one.

The most interesting aspect of the Federer-Murray rivalry, though, isn't the oscillating dominance; it's the fact that the matches are rarely that competitive. Eight of their last nine meetings have resulted in straight-set wins, including Murray's 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 destruction of Federer in the 2012 Olympic finals.

More often than not, the match is determined by Murray's first serve and Federer's second. If Murray can win at least 70 percent of his first-serve points, he almost always beats Federer. Meanwhile, if Federer can win at least 48 percent of his second-serve points, he almost always beats Murray. It is difficult to ascertain who is in better form thus far in Melbourne.

Murray's serve has only been decent (he's won 66 percent of his first-serve points against a series of opponents quite a bit worse than Federer), but his return has been incredible -- he has won 50 percent of ALL return points, not just second serves. He has shown a bit more aggression recently, but that doesn't necessarily play well against Federer, who is, of course, a brilliant counter-puncher. But Federer's serve wasn't altogether impressive in the quarterfinals versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, where he got only 61 percent of his first serves in and won only 56 percent of his second-serve points.

It is difficult to figure out who has the edge heading into the second semifinal. Murray has yet to be tested -- he has faced only one seeded opponent and handled an exhausted No. 14 Gilles Simon with ease -- while Federer had coasted through four rounds before passing an always-stiff test from Tsonga. Two things are certain, however: The odds are good that we will pretty quickly figure out who has (and will keep) the edge, and whoever wins will have to play near-perfect tennis to prevent Djokovic from winning his third straight Australian Open. Djokovic absorbed a series of tough shots from both Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round and Berdych in the quarterfinals, and he emerged from the tests by producing an even higher level of play. He found fifth gear on Day 11; now it's up to Murray and/or Federer to do the same on Day 12.

**********

As bonus prep for tonight, here are highlights from the five 2012 matches between Federer and Murray.

Dubai Finals (Federer wins, 7-5, 6-4)

Wimbledon Finals (Federer wins, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4)

Olympic Finals (Murray wins, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4)

Shanghai Semifinals (Murray wins, 6-4, 6-4)

ATP World Tour Semifinals (Federer wins, 7-6, 6-2)

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