Backhanded Complements: Sony Open Men’s Semifinals Preview

Will the fierce terrier from Spain wear down the German veteran? (Photo: Christopher Levy for Tennis Grandstand)

In the men’s semifinals at the Sony Open, two underdogs with elegant one-handed backhands face two top-five men with more functional two-handers.  While both of the underdogs have continued to sizzle through the draw after catching fire earlier this week, they face opponents designed to cool off such torrid streaks.

Tommy Haas vs. David Ferrer:  Many a less experienced man would have contented themselves with the spectacular upset over world No. 1 Novak Djokovic that Haas delivered in the fourth round.  Too hardened a veteran to succumb to that sort of hangover, the German followed that victory with another commanding effort against Gilles Simon.  Not since 2001 has he won a Masters 1000 shield, his only triumph at that level, but some already have drawn comparisons to Ivan Ljubicic’s autumnal surge at Indian Wells three years ago.  Turning 35 next week, Haas has faced David Ferrer only twice in his long career.  While he has lost both previous matches, the most recent dates from 2008 and thus bears little relevance to a meeting between a gritty baseliner and a stylish all-court artist.

Plenty of contrasts separate them beyond their backhands:  the imposing serve of Haas against the efficient return of Ferrer, the shot-making flair of Haas against the high-percentage grinding of Ferrer, and the forecourt deftness of Haas against the timely passing shots of Ferrer.  Dropping the first set to Melzer in the quarterfinals, the third seed showed glimpses of vulnerability to an attacking fast-court specialist, even on a slow hard court.  Armed with more momentum than Melzer, and drained by fewer long matches, Haas presents a sterner challenge if the Spaniard’s patient retrieving does not chip away at his focus.

Richard Gasquet vs. Andy Murray:   In contrast to Haas and Ferrer, these two men have met repeatedly on occasions of note, highlighted by epic duels at Wimbledon and Roland Garros that Murray wrested away from his rival after losing the first two sets.  A year older than the US Open champion, Gasquet won their only match on outdoor hard courts—seven years ago—and gained a measure of revenge for those embarrassments at majors by rallying from losing the first set against him at Monte Carlo last year.  The Frenchman has resurrected his career by quietly building the consistency that eluded him when others viewed him as the sport’s next great star, and he already has won two small titles in 2013 to accompany a third title and a Masters 1000 final from 2012.

Much less consistent at smaller tournaments since winning his first major, Murray rebounded from a desultory effort at Indian Wells with a series of straight-sets wins here.  No opponent has tested him throughout an entire match, the challenge at which Gasquet has failed so spectacularly before.  The mercurial shot-maker found his range for longer periods than usual in a high-quality battle against Nicolas Almagro and a startlingly routine victory over Berdych, but he now faces someone more physically and emotionally durable than either of those previous victims.