Commentary

Not just fun and games for Rafa, Murray

Originally Published: June 13, 2011
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- What was Jimmy Connors saying about today's rivalries being too soft? Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray were more than willing to go at it before their latest Wimbledon clash in the semifinals on Friday.

"Now he really doesn't want to play anymore. He lost the last few times," said Nadal, with a gleam in his eye. "Seriously, that's true."

"He actually isn't very good," responded Murray. "His partner is very good."

But it wasn't their battles on the tennis court they were talking about; it was their battles in PlayStation soccer. This argument has been going on in public since last October, when Nadal and fellow pro Juan Monaco allegedly defeated Murray and his sort-of coach Dani Vallverdu after some alleged modification of the rules.

Murray clearly hasn't let it go. "We always play with their rules," he said. "Like, there's different camera views. We always play with their one. They play with Inter Milan. We have to play with a different team. Once the game starts, you're not allowed to make substitutions. It's just all their rules."

All in good fun, or psychological warfare? A bit of both. "I think it winds them up when we make excuses and blame other things instead of just saying they were better than us," Murray admitted. "But, yeah, come Friday, obviously all that stuff is irrelevant. Just need to put friendship to one side and just play."

Nadal leads the head-to-head 11-4 and has won their two previous Wimbledon meetings in 2008 and 2010, but Murray is not willing to concede his chances any more than he will the disputed video game result.

"I believe I can win against him," said Murray, who will be playing his third straight Wimbledon semifinal. "I had chances last year.

"I just have to have a better game plan -- go out there and play well and serve well and believe, and I'll have a chance."

The match will bring Britain to a standstill, with the nation hoping Murray can end the 75-year drought of British men's champions at Wimbledon. The Scot's main challenge will be to avoid playing passively, as he has repeatedly done in the past under Grand Slam pressure.

Nadal also has plenty to play for -- another Wimbledon crown and the No. 1 ranking, which will go to Novak Djokovic if Nadal fails to win the title. He does not enjoy playing against Murray's crafty counterpunching but has never lost to him on grass or clay.

[+] EnlargeJo-Wilfried Tsonga
AP Photo/Alastair GrantJo-Wilfried Tsonga crashed the big four party, but he's OK with that.

One thing Nadal is not expecting to be a factor is his injured foot. After hurting it during his fourth-round match against Juan Martin del Potro, the Spaniard was initially worried that it might be a reoccurrence of the stress fracture he suffered as a teenager. But according to a Spanish report, tests showed the problem was merely an inflamed tendon.

Nadal was running freely during his quarterfinal against Mardy Fish after receiving an anesthetic on the affected area, something he plans to use for the rest of the tournament. "My foot is not fine," he said after the match. "But, you know, we are in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. Is an emergency, so I had to play.

"So we decided to sleep a little bit the zone of the foot to play the rest of the tournament, so that's what I'm going to do.

"I'm not worried about nothing now because I know what's going on," he added. "When I did all the test and the test was positive for me, I am not scared because I know I have to try my best for the rest of the tournament. For me, is the last tournament in a month, or in one month and a half."

Murray, meanwhile, will be dealing with a hip problem he picked up during his quarterfinal win, though it is not expected to have a significant effect. "I feel all right, I just have to wait and see. I'll get treatment for it, for sure" Murray said in a TV interview. "I had problems during the French Open; I had problems during the Australian Open. You've just got to try to get on with it."

The other two semifinalists do not play PlayStation together, though both Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have been described as playing PlayStation tennis when at their best. Their first and most famous meeting was in the Australian Open final in 2008, won by Djokovic, but Tsonga then won four of the next five, including a five-set victory over an ill Djokovic in Australia last year.

"After the final in Australia, I've always said that if I could have taken him to a fifth set, I would have crushed him because physically can take five sets," Tsonga said after that win. "I go for my shots, I become strong and don't waste much energy."

Those were big words for a player who had never played a five-set match before that week, but who would argue after the Frenchman's quarterfinal defeat of Roger Federer after being down two sets? The upset spoiled the big-four party, but Tsonga is looking to be more than just an interloper.

"I think I'm the kind of player who likes these big moments. So I hope I will have some more," he said. "I'm stronger because I changed a lot of things in my tennis. Now I try to stay focused all the time and just breathe and stay quiet."

He is currently without a coach, having parted ways with longtime mentor Eric Winogradsky earlier this season. His feelings about the new arrangement can be mixed, but overall he seems to be enjoying his new freedom and responsibility. "You look to be a little more independent," he said during the clay-court season. "[Like] first you go to school, later, you stop living with your parents.

"It's for me, today, to manage my career as I want."

Tsonga names Djokovic as the favorite in this upcoming matchup, but the Serb looked far from convincing at times in his four-set win against 18-year-old Bernard Tomic in the quarterfinals. Wimbledon is the tournament Djokovic most wants to win, and reaching the final would allow him to finally fulfill his career goal of becoming No. 1. At the same time, grass is the surface on which he is least comfortable.

"Everything happens really fast," he said, describing the conditions. "You need to react. You don't have time to kind of readjust. You have to be focused for each service game."

In contrast to the amazing consistency he showed in compiling his 41-match winning streak at the beginning of the season, Djokovic has looked brilliant in some of his matches this fortnight and scratchy in others. It's difficult to tell which Djokovic will show up for the semifinals, and the same goes for Tsonga, who can look untouchable in one match and drop back for the next. The Nadal-Murray encounter is more predictable, with the two usually having tough battles that depend on whether Murray imposes himself or gets involved in drawn-out rallies that Nadal usually takes charge of.

Paradoxically, the lineup feels newly familiar. Last year was the first time since 2002 that Federer had not been involved in the semifinals at Wimbledon, and now it will be two years in a row with Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Federer's quarterfinal conqueror -- last year Tomas Berdych, this year Tsonga. The Swiss may not be done at SW19 quite yet, but the post-Federer order is starting to take shape.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.