Generation Next has arrived
WIMBLEDON, England -- When the Wimbledon men's semifinals are played Friday, it will be the first time in eight years Roger Federer will not be taking part. The tournament has fallen apart, right?
"True, Rafa's played terribly lately," said a sarcastic Federer. "Djokovic can't play tennis anymore, it seems like. Murray is in pieces. Berdych can't keep it together for more than one match."
Any of those statements might have been true at some point this season, but clearly, not this fortnight. All four men left in the draw have shown they are in fine form and will be tough opposition for each other the rest of the way, which means that no one player stands out as the particular beneficiary of Federer's exit.
But it does mean this year's Wimbledon will see a first post-Federer Grand Slam semifinal lineup. The Swiss' staggering run of 23 straight semis at the majors came to an end at the French Open last month, when the final four was made up of a mix of veterans and players in their primes. This time, all four men remaining are 23 or 24 and very much part of the same tennis generation. Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych were all marked out as "Generation Next" when coming up through the pro ranks and all have grown up playing in Federer's shadow, with only Nadal consistently able to break through. Now, for the first time at the business end of a major, they have only each other left to battle.
Federer's departure also affects the dynamic of the tournament. Wimbledon has traditionally been reigned by single champions for long periods -- Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Federer have all won five or more titles since the 1970s. One or two names tend to loom large, and the field is seen as open only on the rare occasions when the mighty king is upset before the final.
Following Sampras' quarterfinal defeats in 1996 and 2001, Richard Krajicek and Goran Ivanisevic became the only single Slam winners at Wimbledon in almost 20 years. Andre Agassi snuck a victory in 1992 and Lleyton Hewitt in 2002, a year before Sampras and Federer began their respective domination of the lawns.
With Federer out, it looks like it will again be that kind of year. With Berdych facing Djokovic in one semifinal, a first-time finalist at Wimbledon is guaranteed. And should Murray defeat Nadal in the other semifinal, a new champion would also be assured.
On paper, each finds his prospects slightly altered by Federer's absence from the final four. World No. 1 and 2008 champ Nadal has become, officially, "The Favorite." Suddenly, it's looking like "Andy's Year." Djokovic's Revival? Berdych's Breakthrough? For the players themselves, of course, they still live by the cliché one match at a time.
There are still significant hurdles on the way to the title, but at least beating Federer over five sets on grass will no longer be one of them. All would have had a shot at taking Federer down this week, particularly with the Swiss less than fully fit, yet playing the six-time champion remains a mental challenge.
Somewhere in the back of the semifinalists' minds, they all know their opportunity has grown slightly.
Nadal was sitting 5-0 down during the changeover of his quarterfinal against Robin Soderling when he saw Federer's imminent defeat flashed up on the scoreboard on Court 1.
"Doesn't affect my game, for sure," Nadal said, but whatever his reaction, he appeared galvanized.
The Spaniard won the next three games and was looking fearsome by the time he finished off the Swede in four sets.
"I think everybody still in has a good chance, but now that Roger lost, I'd pick [Nadal] as the favorite," Soderling said.
British hopes of a Murray victory also increased when Federer exited, and consequently so did the pressure on the Scot to end a national title drought that goes to Fred Perry's Wimbledon victory in 1936.
"I don't know if it's improved my chance or not," Murray said. "I'm playing the No. 1 player in the world in the next round, so it would be a bit silly for me to look past him in any way."
If Murray does make it past Nadal, he must know that a final against Berdych or Djokovic will have a different feeling than playing Federer, to whom he has lost both previous times he's made it to that stage.
Flying under the radar coming into the tournament, Djokovic also finds himself under a little more pressure to reach his first Wimbledon final. Had Berdych not come through, the Serb would have faced Federer in a Grand Slam semifinal for the fourth time, having lost two of the earlier three meetings.
"We all know Roger always plays his best tennis in the end of the tournament," Djokovic said. "He has definitely more pressure, I guess, and [it's] a bigger challenge playing against him in the semis.
"But still, you know, Berdych, he's a player who won against Roger in four sets. We cannot forget that. He's gonna go for the shots. I think he has, again, not much to lose."
And what of Berdych, the man who did the heavy lifting by taking out Federer? As far as he's concerned, his work is not done.
"Not many other moments can be compared to this one, to [be] standing on Centre Court here in Wimbledon beating the six-time champion of here. It couldn't be better," Berdych said. "But still there is one match to be better feelings than this one."
For so long the great underachiever, the Czech bomber has developed some consistency and is now in his second Grand Slam semifinal in a row. It's been a long time coming, but where did it come from?
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"First of all, it's that you win a couple of matches in the beginning of the year, and then you get confidence," he said. "It's not only [about the] last two weeks. It already start I would say maybe Indian Wells, Miami. So it's quite far ago.
"It's many things. You get more and more experience. I get a little bit older, more focused, mentally stronger than before. That's what you need. But it's many things together, so I'm very happy that it works. They are all together like in one pack."
Last month, Berdych defeated Murray on his way to the French Open semifinals, where he was up two sets to one against Soderling before losing in five tight sets. He gained self-belief from the run, which came on his worst surface, and also motivation from the defeat.
"I think Tomas was helped by the semifinal of the French. He knows it's a chance to play a semifinal of the French Open, because he didn't like the clay," said Berdych's coach, Tomas Krupa, who began working with the 24-year-old last January. "He was very, very happy.
"[But] we talked about the chances in this match, and we don't want to make the same faults like in the semifinals."
Against Federer in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, Berdych again went up two sets to one -- "and he won," Krupa said. "That's the difference."
It also got Berdych his second shot at a Grand Slam semifinal, just a few weeks after his first. "If Tomas is playing good and feel good, he has good chances to win, but it's same chances for Novak," Krupa said.
And a better chance, for everyone, than they had a few days ago.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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