Feb 16, 2021

2021 Australian Open Men's and Women's Quarterfinals Writeup 🐢

TENNNISSSSSSSSSS. Some great quarterfinals here and some really inspiring stories popping up. I’ve been lucky enough to have a blog created so I can post full articles (reddit’s character limit usually shortens my posts and makes me split them). I’ll be posting tennis all my tennis articles there for the near future 🐢. As a thank you, they’ve opened their picking competition for one last day. Sneak in late for a chance at some cash prizes, and if you have any suggestions for the blog/contest feel free to offer them.

Last chance to join the AO tipping competition with a prize pool of EUR 100!
Djokovic Zverev :

The clock strikes 4am. An alarm clock gently begins to play Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”. The man is not asleep though. He has been staring intently at the phone for 8 hours, dressed in full gear and holding his racquet. “Finally,” exhales Novak. “Time for tennis.” As he walks to the lobby a dinosaur attacks. His arm is eaten. “Disappointing,” he notes, and continues heading to the courts. A car waits to drive him to the facility, but he chooses instead to walk. “Nice day for-“ and just as he goes to finish his sentence a sinkhole opens up and he falls 40 feet into the Earth. “Haha, Rafa you prankster,” he laughs, and begins chewing a direct path through the dirt towards the courts. As he arrives 13 minutes later he checks the time. 5am. “Hmm,” he thinks. “Only 15 hours left til the match” He stands absolutely still. It is time for tennis.

The clock strikes 5pm. An alarm clock gently begins to play Darude’s Sandstorm. A man’s eyes open, almost 1/3 of the way. He lets go of his Alexander Zverev limited edition body pillow and rolls over. He heads to the bathroom, where his attendant is waiting to brush his teeth. “I look real good,” he indicates to the attendant. The attendant nods, which causes their eyes to wobbly in a sort of circular motion in their head. He hates that, but it seems to happen to everyone. Why can’t they be awesome at nodding like him? “They just can’t,” he says. The attendant looks at him, puzzled. “Aren’t you listening?” he demands. “To your thoughts?” says the attendant. “Duh,” he declares, and heads into the shower. There he scrubs himself clean with a koala, and steps out, where he waits for his brother Mischa to dress him. “I look real good,” he mentions to his brother, who must have already known that. “Yes, brother,” Mischa nods, though he’s unable to control his eyes from spinning in a circle. Next it’s time for a little coaching. Most coaches have decided he is too good to need coaching, but he’s a man of mantras like Novak, and has written an inspirational quote on his hotel room wall.

“Remember that the key to tennis is to play every point hard, unless any minor thing doesn’t go your way.”

Zverev nods. It is time for tennis.

This is a tale of two cities meeting in the middle. Djokovic has dragged himself squeaking and struggling through his matches. He looks labored on every shot, but his level is still good enough to make the degree of the injury come into question. He served moderately well in key moments against Raonic, and returned well enough to get himself through. His major downfall since the injury has been picking a direction before the shot is played. A guy who normally relies on his superior movement and stretching to play defense has been reduced to an intruitive counterpuncher and it’s somewhat hard to watch as he pulls up and grimaces after each wrong choice. This well-documented struggle has many people believing this is Zverev’s chance to win. With Dimitrov and Karatsev waiting for the winner, both Novak and Zverev have to think this match is a must-win.

The odds for Novak opened at -210 and have plummeted to -177 at the time of writing this. Not the largest movement ever, but a definite indication that many people think Novak has finally found someone who will punish his lack of movement and subdued level. I’m not so sure, but in a match that largely hinges on Zverev’s level and Novak’s physical ability, there are too many question marks to do a lot of clear predicting.

Djokovic has struggled all week to return serves out-wide. Zverev has a great serve out-wide from the ad side and struggles to really produce the same from the duece-court. Raonic was pretty much automatic on these, but late in the match Djokovic moved wide and was able to create havok since Raonic had been getting a pass on these. Zverev’s best serves are up the T really on both sides, his height generates a lot of height and although Djokovic will likely return these better, getting into rallies isn’t the worst plan for Zverev today. I say that because belief and confidence is huge for Zverev, and trying to end rallies quickly/change his game significantly and coughing up errors is going to be poison here. Novak has absolutely crushed some forehands when he gets a chance to settle, and it’s dangerous for Zverev to turn this into a shootout since he’s the player more likely to sail one long or into the net at 30-30. If I’m Zverev’s camp I’m having him play heavy balls down the center of the court as much as I can. Novak’s mobility is hampered but so is his ability to generate power. He’s shown that he can still creates excellent angles when they’re available, but generally speaking in rallies he’s just really chosen the “hang in there” method on a lot of rally balls. His normal error-free tennis is backed by his ability to hit with depth on the backhand and cover the court. These things aren’t there as prominently this week and we saw him struggle to dominate these linear bh-to-bh rallies against Tiafoe and Fritz. Had Raonic not decided to smash his backhands mostly into the net I think we’d have seen him do ok as well.

Zverev should actually win this. His game is built to compete against the big 3. He has wins against them in moderately big moments, but this is the biggest. What I watched and was reminded of the last few rounds was that these are humans, not professional tennis robots. I watched Sabalenka and Swiatek lose their nerve in the moment and force errors. I watched Shapovalov struggle with the fear of losing to a younger player to the extent that when the sets got tight he imploded. I watched Zverev struggle with the idea that Lajovic wasn’t making errors when he wanted him to, and that’s something that lends a question mark to Zverev. He has as big a serve as Raonic, but is way less efficient. He has a huge forehand, but it can disappear. He has one of the best backhands in tennis, but at times seems to fight it off/push it rather than swing it free. I expect him at his best today but that is a high expectation. This reminds me again of the previous round where I felt that if Novak really was clearly going to lose or wasn’t able to compete, he would withdraw. As the rounds progresses margins get thinner and thinner. Novak is still slightly better than Zverev. Djokovic in 4-5.

Karatsev Dimitrov :

The clock strikes 6AM. Somewhere in the woods of Australia, a man is polishing his calves. Behind him is a large axe. He has not been chopping trees, but planting them. Why does he use an axe? “It’s manly to dig with an axe,” he declares to no one in particular. A wombat nods, and Karatsev pats it gently on the head, before taking a bite of a cactus. It is time for tennis.

The clock strikes 8AM. A man rolls over, sending men and women flying from the bed. An orgy? No no, there are children reading this. They are just believers. As Dimitrov gets closer and closer to playing the way we all know he can, we lean closer and closer to our screens. “IS THIS FINALLY IT?” we begin to think, and before we know it, we’re in a pile in his bed in Melbourne mumbling “is this it?” in our sleep. So is this it? Idk. But it is time for tennis.

Just when Aslan Karatsev’s performance against Diego looked to be a flash in the pan, he turned around a match against FAA that was completely gone. FAA was able to push the pace and hit to the open court and really expose that Karatsev’s movement is good, but not great. For a big guy he covers the court well and is rock-solid in neutral rallies, but once he’s on the defensive it’s tough for him to really win the sprint vs ball battles. Once he got momentum though, there was a level of focus that is really enjoyable to watch, and his ability to produce service winners is something that matters so much in a major (look at Querrey and Anderson’s great results and runs).

Dimitrov hasn’t played a match in a while, despite being in the quartefinals. Cilic was a ball of rust, Bolt fell apart, PCB withdrew, and Thiem was physically/emotionally drained. I can’t point to the exact issue with Thiem, but he had the appearance of someone who has just run out of tennis. His footwork was off at times, and Dimitrov did a great early job of returning serve. His slice is generally a problem because it gives his opponent control of the rallies, but extending rallies and defending really did the trick in making Thiem bow out. It was a strange ending, but Dimitrov has won all their hardcourt meetings in recent history so it kinda makes sense. He matches up well in this next contest, and one of the biggest question marks is Dimitrov’s backhand. If the ball is something he doesn’t struggle with, Karatsev will have a field day and a simple target. If the ball stays low and Karatsev has struggles with fatigue, it will be an error-filled day. While Dimitrov in his current form is a few clicks better than FAA, Felix hugs the baseline and pushes the ball to the open court in a much more aggressive fashion than Grigor, and I do expect a lot of grueling rallies in this, but Karatsev did not seem to mind the length of the rallies that much at all. In fact, at the end of the match he was extremely solid on his backhand and wasn’t forcing shots at all, and it was FAA who folded with errors and tried to escape by hitting his backhand down the line.

I’m unceremoniously going to continue believing in Karatsev. That last victory was completely unexpected in format and after losing the first two sets I felt Karatsev didn’t have much chance. This one is about Dimitrov; if he continues his level and the serving prowess he’s displayed, he has a very good chance to get through. With a lead, he won’t disappear like FAA did as he’s much more physically durable than a 20 year old. Karatsev’s offense is real, and his serving has been better than Dimitrov’s at producing balls to hit. I think Dimitrov’s slice returns were good against Thiem’s offerings but will put him on the defensive against Karatsev. The question marks for Karatsev are fatigue and consistency. He’ll have ample chances to play himself into this one though. Karatsev in 5 even though my brain is screaming Grigor in 3. I think I am cheering more than predicting in this case.

Medvedev Rublev :

The clock is broken. No one will admit who broke it, but Rublev and Medvedev both blame the other. The broken clock sits on a shelf next to six other broken clocks. “They are right twice a day!” a Tennis Channel announcer exhaustingly points out, before launching into an anecdotal story that is not germaine to the match we’re watching about an American player who lost 5 rounds ago. Do Medvedev and Rublev live together Ernie and Bert style? I’m going to say yes, 100%. Is it time for tennis? Yes.

Medvedev was never really in danger against McDonald, who played well even in a lopsided loss. Rublev had some pressure moments, even going down a break against Ruud before righting the ship and earning a withdrawal before the third set. It’s easy to look at this matchup and think it’s going to be a Medvedev win again. I will remind myself though that last year in the US Open I expected Rublev to make inroads in rallies and push this deep. Medvedev’s straight sets win was impressive but caught many by surprise. It seemed that Rublev’s power was easily reflected back, and that the defensive presence of Medvedev was 1 game per set better than Rublev. Fast forward and Rublev has made tons of progress, but Medvedev has as well. He’s had letdowns against a few opponents so far, but they look more like boredom than struggle. His serve is better, his returning is better, and his shot tolerance is worlds better. Rublev thrives on trading on his forehand and causing errors. Medevedev is just a perfect foil to most of what he does, but Krajinovic getting 2 sets and Mackie being up a break means that Rublev will get some looks at break points if he works very hard, which we know he will. I still give the nod to Medvedev, as winning so convincingly of late and having the right H2H makes for a very “I’ll believe it when I see it” situation as far as Rublev’s chances. Medvedev in 4.

Tsitsipas Nadal :

The clock strikes noon. A man awakens. He stretches. Walks to has balcony. Another beautiful day in the Bahamas. He takes a photo and uploads it to his instagram with the caption “Another day in paradise, love each other”. This view is not Tsitspas’, this balcony is not Tsitsipas’, but this photo and caption soon will be. Somewhere across the world the clock strikes midnight. Tsitsipas is up reading children’s books. “I knew the turtle would win!” he declares with a clenched fist. The turtle always wins! “Read it again!” declares his dad. He is sure the rabbit will win this time. “RABBITS ARE FAST,” he shrieks. It does not seem to be time for tennis.

The clock strikes 5AM. Nadal begins waking the roosters for their morning duties. Next he wakes up all the essential workers and gives them rides on his bike to their jobs. On the way back he notices a marathon starting. He is tempted, but has to get home. After all, it is Christmas morning. As he arrives and changes into his jammies there is a childlike excitement in the Nadal household. He heads downstairs. Uncle Tony and Federer and all his pals are there. There are three exercise-bike shaped presents under the tree. Another fine Christmas.

It is always Christmas when you are Nadal. He loves the game, he loves to compete, he loves his family, he loves his hometown, and he loves playing opponents with one-handed backhands. Tsitsipas got a very good gift for this matchup with Berretini forfeiting, as he’ll be fresh and this is imperative to have any chance against Nadal. Now, once a tournament I predict Nadal to lose a match. This is a very tempting spot to do that. A fresh opponent, with a powerful serve and very good shot tolerance in rallies, who is still rising through the rankings and tends to compete better uphill than he does as a favorite. Nadal’s performance against Fognini was good enough, but he really made a lot of errors trying to create offense. For an “offensive” talent, Fognini goes into a very conservative approach against Nadal. He basically just looks to keep the ball in the court and keep the match close, and when he got the break as a result and tried to open up on offense, surprise surprise it wasn’t there. He beat De Minaur with his speed and consistency (as odd as that sounds), and his plan was the same against Nadal. That doesn’t work, and Fognini’s lack of a big serve hurt him a lot when it was time to put away the third set.

What tends to happen to me watching Nadal is that he doesn’t have to compete all out in early rounds, so errors are there that aren’t against better players in later rounds. Him and his team are some of the best at gameplanning and managing his physical fitness, and it sometimes leads to him looking vulnerable (7-5 sets against guys like Norrie). He’ll need a better level, however, against Tsitsipas. Tsitsipas is a bit tippy in his teacups, but he has the sort of desire to compete at these levels that brings out his best when it’s time. His performance against Novak at the French, and his consistent quality at the World Tour Finals shows this, and honestly if he wasn’t such a headcase, he’d be regarded as a future #1. The shanks and letdowns in key moments have come, but the good news here is there really is no pressure on him. He’s not expected to beat Nadal, and so he can play freely. I think it will make for a positive result.
This again, comes down to a “who shows up.” Tsitsipas is the one who needs his best, as Nadal shows up even when he’s not at his best. The fast courts benefit Tsitsipas if he’s able to open up, and if he’s serving well I actually expect him to win this match. Nadal remains a favorite until it happens though, but I guess when you’re writing an article you’re supposed to make a prediction, so I’m sticking with it. Tsitsipas in 5.

Barty Muchova :

The best thing about Barty has been how smooth her forehand has been on the run this week. That speaks to dedicated leg-workouts, as she really has been able to set her feet even while scrambling and place the ball well. She had a brief letdown at the end against Rogers, but it was more Shelby playing well than Barty really struggling. She’s starting to look like a very much improved player even from her title runs, and this is a very winnable matchup. She seems to get taller in my mind every round she wins, and that is a good strategy.

Muchova played spoiler against one of my favorite players. After coming back from 5-0 against Pliskova in the previous round, she went with a similar plan. Mertens was up 5-2 and cruising in the first. Her baseline talent seemed a bit too much for Muchova, who was spraying some errors and not really finding her way out of points. Things fell apart though, and as Muchova came back she started to really find her forehand as well as a good rhythm on serve. Muchova was down a minibreak against in the tiebreak, but Mertens couldn’t hang in. It was a similar but subdued story in the 2nd set. Mertens seemed to be able to move Muchova but just couldn’t hold serve when it counted. The best thing about Muchova’s game is how many points she wins without pressing thin edges. Her forehand is a cannon and her defending is excellent. She’s the sort of player that just gradually adds a little more margin to each shot until you wind up behind the baseline watching her hit a simple volley at net.

The run is likely over, as Barty hasn’t really had a problem with offense this week. Alexandrova was frustrated by Barty’s ability to put extra balls back, and her offense is bigger than Muchova’s. Rogers hits the ball about as big on her forehand and bigger on the backhand at times, and Barty looked in cruise control throughout their match. Starting to look like a Barty Brady clash which will be extremely entertaining. The only saving grace here is that Muchova found a service rhythm in her last set against Mertens that I haven’t really seen before. If you think about the Ostapenko or Swiatek run, it is possible for talented players to find extra gears within events as their belief builds. Muchova will need to redline in this one though to have a chance. Barty in 2 tight sets.

Brady Pegula :

Brady and Vekic played the best match I’ve seen in a while. Vekic was crushing the ball and yet Brady was inside the baseline jumping and swinging and just trading in an exceptionally spirited manner. She really is a baller and Vekic looked close in the second but couldn’t keep producing on offense. Brady seems to be getting better and better as the event goes and has been able to break early and often in most of her matches. This is the key for her against Pegula, who has a great deal of power on her forehand and has been serving well. Pegula’s match with Svitolina looked a lot like Swiatek’s against Halep. Pegula had the talent and bigger offense, but bouts of errors and frustration tanked her at times. The second set was really just Pegula going away from her strategy of keeping the ball down the center until she had the right ball to work with. It was a great formula for beating Svitolina, and in the second when she tried to play offense right away Svitolina was able to trade angle and really create easy points for herself. Keeping fast players in the center of the court is a pretty decent strategy, and actually I think it’s her best chance against Brady as well. Brady is very active defending on both wings, and her crosscourt forehand gets faster and deeper every shot. From the center of the court, she doesn’t really generate a lot of offense if the ball has depth, as her forehand is a bit whippy and won’t really hit the ball clean past anyone from there.

All that said, Pegula’s errors are going to cost her. She struggled to hold serve, and looked uncomfortable with the extra balls at net. She hit some good volleys, but took several of them at times. Brady is a good bit better than Svitolina at creating offense on the move, and Svitolina really made some errors in the first set that she simply didn’t have to. Caveats here are that Pegula’s forehand is struck hard enough to hit past really anyone at this point. If she’s able to get inside the baseline after serves, this could be close. I don’t think she has a whole match of offense though, and I see her as being a slightly less fluid version of Brady. Brady in 2.

Hsieh Osaka :

Hsieh Su-Wei keeps rolling. Although Voundrousova would later disclose that she was injured, she really looked in a nightmare against Hsieh. She was run unmercifully from side to side, and Hsieh’s shortened and uniform backswing meant that even without a great deal of power, it was difficult for Marketa to figure out where the next ball was going once she gave up control. Hsieh’s backhand cross-court was hit so sharply time and time again, and it really was a masterclass. Her reward is playing one of the best defenders on tour, fresh off a win she didn’t really deserve against Muguruza. Garbiñe had the match won, and really was consistent on offense while Osaka forced a number of simple shots into the net trying to escape. Right at the end though, Muguruza blinked, and after giving up the break she held, she looked like she thought losing was suddenly inevitable. It was hard to watch, and Osaka didn’t really player great even while coming back. Question marks here about what level Osaka will come into this at. Sometimes squeaking by can make you play freely, which she’ll need, and sometimes you can really struggle in the next round with errors because you’re still searching for your timing.

Hsieh is around +550 for this one, and while I agree that she’s a big underdog, all of their recent meetings have been 3 setters, so it’s more about trying to price the match so that the $ is not lopsided on Osaka (books generally want to balance money and so avoid exposure on any single side) more than it is a nod to Osaka winning 1,1. That being said, Errani made Hsieh look very bad by keeping height on the ball, and Voundrousova struggled but the injury seemed to make her unable to really defend properly. Osaka’s errors against Muguruza took several shots, and she still was able to get through. I think she’ll stumble at times against Hsieh’s variety, but the errors that make you shake your head are ones you make once and then correct, and it’ll be very difficult for Hsieh to play many dropshots or clean winners with the pace that Osaka brings. Osaka in 2 with one close set.

Halep Williams :

Halep played some of the best tennis I’ve seen in a while against Swiatek. If the usual coaching visits were allowed (they aren’t during a major), I think Iga would have won this match. Her general rally ball on the forehand wing just builds pressure, and a more conservative approach to the match would have yielded opportunities in the end, but she seemed to want to end rallies right away, which simply isn’t possible against Halep. Halep fought extremely hard to put the ball back over and over and take time away from Swiatek, and she also served really well out-wide from the duece-court which isn’t usually part of her game.

Serena had a similar contest with Sabalenka where she played the big points better and won as a result. After a day where Sabalenka landed 67% of her first serves, she landed 60. After a day where she made 17 unforced errors, she made 35. This was really the crux of it. She was in position to win this match several times, going something like 3/11 on break points, but when the moment came she realized it and missed. This is a growing pains thing, as the fame of some of the big names in tennis and the situation can often create problems. It’s on me for not realizing this would be in issue, but I still think Sabalenka is the better player currently.

Serena’s serving was great when it needed to be. Acing Sabalenka is a bit easier than Halep, but Serena will have a better chance to rush Halep with her power than Swiatek did. I expect a classic match here. Serena is unlikely to disappear and the level she brought against Sabalenka was a cut above anything she’s shown prior, but Halep’s defending from the baseline is something that I’m not sure Serena will find her way past. I’m leaning into the upset here as far as names, and I think although Halep’s second serve will get battered left and right, that it will take a very dominant serving display from Serena to get her across the finish line here. Even while writing this, I am reminded that in previous rounds I felt that Serena’s weight-loss and the early season jitters made her a decent favorite to add another major here, and with a slightly troubled Osaka possibly waiting, this tournament has just become very winnable for Serena so she should be at her best. Still, I’ll go with who played the better previous round. Halep in 3.