Ever since Roger Federer completed a hat-trick of Wimbledon titles in the summer of 2005 the Swiss player and his arch rival Rafael Nadal have enjoyed a virtual duopoly of grand slam honours. Their period of dominance would have been total but for a solitary interruption by Serbia's Novak Djokovic at last year's Australian Open. Djokovic, who has failed to kick on from that career highlight, is focused on repeating that triumph in what has become Federer's happiest hunting ground.
The world No 1 has not tasted defeat in the US Open since Argentina's David Nalbandian sent him packing at the fourth-round stage in 2003. He moved closer to a sixth successive New York crown by enjoying what has become a customary victory over the Swede Robin Soderling in the quarter-finals on Wednesday. Federer looked similarly on course last year for a third straight title at the Australian Open until Djokovic derailed him in the semi-finals.
The world No 4 Serbian will be optimistic that he can spring another shock in the Big Apple after a gritty quarter-final win over Spain's Fernando Verdasco. Djokovic, who defeated the 10th-seeded Verdasco 7-6, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2, admits though that he will have to take his game up a notch or two to avenge Flushing Meadows defeats by Federer in the 2007 final and in the semi-finals a year ago. "The quality of the match wasn't the best," he reflected after totting up too many unforced errors against an equally profligate Verdasco. "I was lucky to win the tie-break [in the first set]."
Djokovic was grateful that his strong serve stood up the test against the dangerous Verdasco, whose mobility towards the end of a tight encounter was impaired by an abdominal strain. The fourth seed is hoping for another high percentage of cheap points against Federer whom he has beaten four times in 12 attempts. The Serb has been a popular figure with the New York crowds over the past fortnight.
His playful mimicking of John McEnroe after his fourth-round victory was received enthusiastically, as was his thoughtful gesture to invite children of victims of the September 11 attacks eight years ago to watch his matches. Djokovic, 22, who was forced as a child to leave his war-torn homeland to pursue his tennis career, said: "I know what it feels like to have your life disrupted like that so I just tried to bring some smiles and make them enjoy. I hope that's what I did."Federer earned his annual New York showdown with Djokovic by extending his unblemished record against Soderling to 11 wins from as many matches, including the historic French Open final in June which completed the Swiss's elusive career grand slam.
Soderling, who had sensationally eliminated Nadal from that Roland Garros showpiece, worried Federer in that final and again at Wimbledon a month later without seriously threatening to topple the great man. It was the same here as Federer praised Soderling's performance after securing his passage into a record 22nd successive grand slam semi-final. "It was so close towards the end and it's just a great relief to come through because Robin just got better and better as the match went on," said Federer, after securing a 6-0, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6 verdict.
"I knew it was going to be tough but the beginning was a bit too easy and all of a sudden he found his way into the match and showed what a great player he really is." Reaching the last four of every major since his third-round defeat at Roland Garros in 2004 is an achievement of which Federer is rightly proud. "It's not a record I aimed for, that's for sure, but it's probably one of the greatest records for me in my personal career," he said.
"I'm just happy it keeps on going. I'm healthy and I guess that's most important because that's what has allowed me to play well at majors and I'm in for a shot again to defend my title so that's fantastic." @Email:email@example.com