Feb 18, 2021

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

Semifinals are here, with a slightly odd schedule of 3 matches today and 1 tomorrow. A ton of strange injuries and comeback have populated the quarterfinals, which is both disappointing and wild. In the interest of the serious ramifications today I’ve gotten real serious. Real serious! No jokes! No jaguar stories! No references to whose brain or body is secretly vegetables!

Novak Djokovic vs Aslan Karatsev :

The Novak Zverev match was an eye-opening look at just how good a limited Novak can play. After an opening service break, he looked to be conserving energy and avoiding any significant movement to his backhand side. This appears to be the area where he has the most trouble since his injury, and he tends to shorten up his run and go to a backhand slice from there rather than his usual two-handed offering. Somehow though, at 5-4 with Zverev getting ready to take the first set, Djokovic found the ability to put his racquet cleanly on every ball. Zverev did well to regroup and steal the tiebreaker, which included a number of mini-breaks both ways, but it was a level of offense that Novak hit in the end of the set that we haven’t really seen in a while. This has been the hallmark of Djokovic’s injury run ever since the 5th set against Fritz. No shape on the ball, going down the line on his backhand every chance he gets, and roping forehands as hard as he can anytime he gets a chance. I honestly think his serving has improved also, and humbly suggest that he play every event injured.

Zverev’s mobility, backhand, and serve made this an interesting contest. He reflected power well, he forced Novak to go for dropshots that he shouldn’t have, and he dismissed some offensive offerings with good passes down the line. He showed, as he always does, that when he competes hard he can hang with anyone. The problem seems to be that he wants a break. It is tough for a tall athlete to do so much running, but in this match we saw Novak employ a strategy which was basically “run you until I get an error.” That’s great tennis strategy against anyone, but it seemed obvious once Novak hit that gear that Zverev would eventually start making errors. The balls he reflects and smokes during this are great, and I think he should look to do that more often. He’s capable of playing long points, but shouldn’t. It’s been a problem for a while and although he gets better every season, there’s no reason a tall guy with such a huge serve and two good wings should want to do anything but go for quick offense. He has lost a number of matches struggling with players who simply aren’t going for anything. It’s a mental lapse, being steady doesn’t make a difference if your opponent’s mental goal is to be steady. They’re working hard at getting into the exact situation you think you’re punishing them with. Easier said than done though, and I actually think Zverev played the best tennis we’ve seen from him in most of that match. Who cares about him though right? What are we really all here for? If you said Aslan Karatsev, you’re correct.

Aslan Karatsev is setting records, and crushing interviews. The announcers keep saying “MAYBE THE MOMENT IS FINALLY GETTING TO HIM WHAT A SHAME THE MOMENT IS FINALLY GETTING TO HIM” as if they care, then following that up with peppering him with questions about if the moment is getting to him yet after he wins. I think they should consider their interactions with him better. Less talk about how insane his run is and more recognition of how insane his play is. This guy has started out the last two matches just completely out of sorts, and never once done anything but continue to hold his racquet like a samurai in his return position, and continue to play well within himself until the results come. I love it, and in a 3/5 format it is so lost on so many players that “lock down mode because I missed in the first set” is a bad strategy. Not to put spoilers in here, but Tsitsipas basically stuck to his strategy of going after his backhand last night until he played himself into form. There’s a big difference between desperation and belief, and I think Karatsev has the latter. Dimitrov was unfortunate to develop back issues late in the 2nd set which made things pretty unplayable, because prior to that his level was excellent and his defending was earning errors from Karatsev. Injuries are often earned, and Karatsev running Dimitrov around even in a partially losing effort early may have contributed. At one point in the 2nd though, Dimitrov just lost his serve. He seemed to be falling apart, and while I initially thought he was mentally folding under the Karatsev pressure, it seems more likely that the spasms were limited his ability. It was brave and also odd of him to finish out the match. Some guys on tour are never-quitters. Thiem is one of them, and apparently Venus Williams is also. It’s difficult to watch someone who can’t play continue to sort of go through the motions, and the stage (quarterfinals of a major) might play into their decision to continue, but it’s not exactly great television. Injured against Karatsev is just not an equation you can win. Wait. Reading that sentence gives me hope!

Abandon all hope ye who enter here. This is as good a situation as Karatsev could hope for here, but it is not a great one. Zverev’s serving and physicality in the rallies would have made for a very difficult matchup for Karatsev, as his returning isn’t the greatest and he needs time on his forehand to produce. A lot of his quick losses have been to guys with similar power. Novak’s level right now is just too much for most players, and his serving has been solid. He is actually injured though, and the clear issue with movement to his backhand side is something that Karatsev (with a good serving day) can exploit. You really need a safe zone against a player like Novak, and it will have to be his backhand for Karatsev. I’m not expecting him to win extended rallies, because he’s a good bit slower than Zverev and shorter and Zverev was stretched to his brink chasing Djokovic’s shots. Where I think Novak hurts Karatsev is with his backhand down the line. He’s been able to lean into it and inject pace in the later part of this week, and movement to that spot is a place where we saw Karatsev cough up errors, and at times also not move at all.

I think despite his solid backhand and good rhythm, Aslan will be on a string in a number of rallies. His path to victory is really simple here. Compete. F the score. F the moment. F winning and losing and anything else that’s temporary. Dwell in what is forever. And what is forever is Aslan Karatsev in all of our hearts. Sorry I had a moment there. With an injured opponent and a Cinderella story it is not hard for the crowd (who will be super hyped tonight) to get behind an underdog fighting hard. Novak has a temper, and Novak (despite lengthy debate about the seriousness of it) has an injury. Either one can hamper him, and although he got past Zverev, he wasn’t overwhelming on defense. Karatsev’s offense is much better than Zverev’s, and the job will be to compartmentalize the pressure and rallies he will surely get abused in, and be ready to swing when the chances come. I think he will, but he’s not a realistic option here against the level we’ve seen in the last two rounds from Novak. Novak dispatched better serves, better defenders, and is likely to win here barring furthering his injury. Not a great outlook for Karatsev, but one that makes his role here easy to do. Compete, pressure-free, and see what happens. It’s what he’s done so far, and although McEnroe laughed at UTR making Karatsev’s current ranking 18 in the world, that is the level of tennis he’s brought this week. Dimitrov got injured, but FAA didn’t. Gerasimov didn’t. Diego didn’t. This is world class stuff he’s brought, and for a tour that’s full of a lot of try-harding, it has been incredibly enjoyable to watch this guy play composed yet all-out offense. Djokovic in 3, but I will be cheering for more Karatsev magic.

Daniil Medvedev vs Stefanos Tsitsipas :

Just when you think things can’t get any better than a peak Medvedev Nadal semifinal, the universe gifts us this. Medvedev beat Rublev in the same fashion he did at last year’s US Open. It’s going to require Rublev to come up with a different gameplan, as him vs Medvedev is a personal nightmare for him. Medvedev returns every single offensive offering he puts out there, but can’t end the rallies himself. The result is that Rublev swings himself out, and by halfway through the second set, Rublev was sitting on the towel stand visibly exhausted. The ref was kind not to start the shotclock early, but once you’re that level of fatigued, you can’t really play against Medvedev anymore. The last half of this match was lopsided, and while it’s not a great result for Rublev, his coach will watch the footage and see that getting to net early is a mistake, but getting to net once Medvedev’s edge is off a little is the solution. Rublev had the advantage in rallies but Medvedev’s length and speed mean the ball is coming back. Being so far behind the baseline is his and Thiem’s and Rafa’s secret to really beating a guy with power, and what they do from there is look to hit with good depth. Medvedev’s backhand when he’s off the court is about nothing more than creating that deep angle to his opponent’s backhand. The ball isn’t struck hard, and although it’s not the easiest of volleys, you can’t let your opponent recover from a bad position like you do by staying back in those spots. Early in a match, Med’s accuracy is too good. If you come in, you get passed. Once he’s a bit fatigued though, he will miss. Since Rublev was tired, getting to net is easier said than done, but for now he’ll be back to the drawing board.

Tsitsipas Nadal is a match that I know a lot of people watched half of. It was as one-sided as can be through the first and second and every time Nadal got his racquet on a forehand he hit clean winners. The better Tsitsipas played the more he was dismissed, and I didn’t see too much hoping going into the third. Nadal was sweating profusely even early in the 1st though, and he gradually wore down. Tsitsipas has recently hired expert tour strategist Aslan Karatsev to be part of his team, and it’s clear he’s learned the “win once you’ve been summarily written off” strategy. He went after his backhand crosscourt from halfway through the beginning of the 1st set til the end of the 5th. He found his service rhythm as well in the last few sets which has always dictated whether he wins or loses. When that compact arcing motion lands, he’s hard to beat. When he spins it into the net, he’s generally the same player as Lajovic. I know I predicted it, but again that is not how I saw it going. A monumental comeback from Tsitsipas, and Nadal missing overhands in the tiebreaker will stick with fans for a while. It’s a testament to how much better he is than the rest of the tour on that shot that we never even expect him to miss one, let alone two.

Medvedev Tsitsipas is the rivalry we always want. We are grownups and we don’t want anyone to bicker, unless we get to watch it in high definition. The bad blood between these two is unlikely to come up unless there is controversy, but plugging the rowdy Australian crowd back in after having it escorted out of the stadium a few days ago is likely to make for an electric environment. Medvedev has dominated this matchup, but it isn’t like Tsitsipas can’t win or compete. The same level he showed in the last three sets will be necessary, and one of the main reasons Medvedev is so dominant against a lot of these next-gen guys is that he just doesn’t make errors. His offense is always probing, always looking to earn errors. When he has the open court, he juices it and takes a free swing, but most of the time he’s just keeping it low and focusing on depth/not creating angles for his opponent. Despite the great finish against Nadal, I don’t know that Tsitsipas will be able to find enough cheap points here to win. Medvedev is likely to have the fresher legs, the better serve, more experience, and as a baseline he is going to put more balls in play. This is a good foundation to start with, and he has to sit as a favorite. Tsitsipas should have watched the Rublev match as well, and should know that getting to net and applying pressure is the best path past a rock-solid baseliner. Forcing it is going to get him passed a lot, but the accumulation of pressure can yield mental errors, and all it really takes is to guess right a few times when approaching to make your opponent second-guess themselves. Kyrgios at times does this very well, and if you ever get a chance to get to a tournament before the 3rd round is completed, you might get to see him play. I want fireworks here, and I think we’ll get them. Medvedev has hinted that he was going to get a major for quite some time now, and this is a prime spot for him to do so. The Djokovic injury actually makes me view Medvedev as a favorite to win this event, and I liked Tsitsipas’ comeback but I don’t think he’ll get it done here. Medvedev in 4-5.

Karolina Muchova vs Jennifer Brady :

What is the what? Ash Barty cruised through this tournament. I doubted her once against Alexandrova but she handled that offense with little issue. She was doing the same in her quarterfinal against the powerful yet straightforward Muchova. Muchova was making errors, looked genuinely stumped, and called for a medical timeout down 6-1, 2-1. She seemed to be having issues with the heat as many players did yesterday, and went off court for treatment. It seemed like it would be a foregone conclusion when she returned, but suddenly Barty couldn’t find the court. She looked visibly concerned about missing on every shot, and this as we all know results in deceleration of the racquet on the balls you should swing hard at, and acceleration on the ones that you don’t need to (shots where the rally is won and you just need to hit to the right spot). It was really hard to watch, and Muchova didn’t do much except notice that implosion and allow it to happen. She played very well to avoid errors to close out the match, but she really wasn’t doing anything on many rallies but keeping the ball in play to Barty’s backhand. It worked, and Barty lost her range on her slice and started going to a two-hander which, while serviceable, is a shot she’s not totally confident in. Just a bizarre unraveling by Barty, but a great result for Muchova who has pretty much earned every victory so far with some sort of wild comeback from an insurmountable score.

I’m a Jenn Brady fan, but she really was lucky to win this last match. Brady’s backhand and engagement level on that wing is great. Brady’s footwork on her forehand is excellent and she moves the ball well. Brady’s serve though became a liability early in this one. Frequent break points and service games going to duece are a really hard thing to overcome, and even though she was able to recover her break in the first the writing was on the wall. Pegula’s defending on the backhand is great, and her power in the forehand made this an even contest. Where she had an edge was on serve, as she was locating the ball excellent all week. She really didn’t struggle at all until midway in the second, which is where she also fell apart against Svitolina. Whether it’s some slight fatigue or just the difficulty of playing such a high level for a whole match, errors started to slip in, and while Brady doesn’t beat you with outright winners, she is very good at applying pace and hanging in long rallies, so errors are exactly the result she’s looking for. Her confidence grew, and Pegula’s frustrations did as well.

An early break for Pegula in the third almost felt good as a Brady backer, as it lent Jenn a chance to kinda develop a fresh momentum. It’s easy to have a letdown after forcing a third, but breaking in the first game is almost an impossible thing to hold onto in a deciding set. Mentally, it gives you the “i’m going to win” possession of the match, and when you get broken, you haven’t lost the match but emotionally there are some seeds of that. Similar to watching a scary movie, it’s only on the screen, but you can still feel a bit fried after watching a particularly scary one. Giving back a break still leaves you in good shape, but it’s easy to feel like things are slipping from your grasp. Brady did extremely well to close out and pushed very hard in Pegula’s and her own service games. That’s a good quality for champion; to play more aggressively with the advantage rather than cling to it. Anyway, great great result for Pegula who has been hovering around that mid-high tier for a while,

Muchova Brady feels very similar to Muchova Barty. Muchova has the game but shouldn’t be able to hurt Brady too much with her pace. Her serving is good but not great, and her backhand is solid but not going to hit clean winners here. This is likely going to be a match more like Brady Pegula than anything else. We’ve already seen one legendary forehand suffer against Brady’s forehand, with Vekic losing most of these exchanges. Muchova has a similar issue here. Brady is the better mover, and slightly better defender. Muchova’s offense is solid, and I have to say she really is a complete player with a bright future, but Brady is likely to have less difficult decisions here. Without much to separate them in rallies, this is one I expect to have extremely grueling rallies, and with Muchova’s issues in the previous match, I expect Brady to outlast her. It’s easy for Muchova to recover to start fresh, but it’s hard to maintain that level. Brady in 3.

Naomi Osaka vs Serena Williams :

This looks like the finals, but we’ll see what the other semifinals shows us first. Osaka beat Hsieh pretty easily, and the story with Hsieh remains that if he opponent is fast, she struggles to find offense. Defending her serve was rough, and Osaka wasn’t magical, but didn’t need to be. Good hard work and composed serving sealed this one. I would say that the level of serving that it’ll take for Osaka to beat Serena hasn’t been seen yet, but in her previous title runs she’s basically improved every round, and I think she really has a way of playing to the level of her opponent both in good and bad ways, so we’ll get her best here.

Serena is ballin. I thought her weight loss showed dedication and commitment to getting that Margaret Court record, but her play has improved as well. The first forehand she hit in her match with Halep was absurd. She hit her offensive forehand in this match harder than most of the men’s players, and while that became a wing that Halep simply should not go to, she also rolled over her backhand extremely well and created sharp short angles. The result from these two crosscourt victories was that Halep wound up on the run for much of this match. She broke back admirably a few times, but couldn’t hold her serve. Sabalenka served great against Li, and terribly against Serena. Halep served great against Swiatek, and terribly against Serena. I’m starting to believe that the threat of Serena bettering their serves is keeping players from being able to land them normally, which is poison because Serena’s main defensive issues on tour at this point are with footwork and shanking returns when first serves land in. Look no further than Pironkova (who has no pace on her serve and doesn’t really create wild angles) holding serve nonstop against her last year in the USO. Osaka needs to start there. Landing even subpar first serves is a must in this match. The second key for Osaka is going to be power, which Halep lacked. Serena with time or a short ball was just unstoppable last round, and despite Osaka’s excellent retrieving, she’ll lose this match if she floats the ball in. Serena is too close to the finish line to do anything other than compete all out here, and that results in a kind of compartmentalized focus that will allow her to play each point purely. If Osaka is seeing the ball clearly though, and stepping into it or adding good depth, she will earn errors. Serena puts the ball in the net when it comes too quickly; she doesn’t necessarily have to but she is not really in the business of guiding the ball back into play unless she’s on the run. If you go right at her, and I think Osaka’s coaches will be aware of this, she struggles to create.

I don’t want to just point to keys for Osaka though, as this is a match I’m not sure who I even want to win. Serena’s path to victory involves a few intangibles, and just continuing her excellent level of play. Her serving will be a big key. She has hit aces on break points a lot in the past, and it has continued here. She’s getting the ball outwide very easily, and with new balls her serve from the ad-side is looking unreturnable. The intangibles are to really be the spectable that she is on the court. The frenzied yelling as rallies extend, the emotional and directional celebrations (almost always staring across the net) after key points; these are things that make me cringe but are useful against a somewhat meek personality like Osaka. Not the best sportsmanship, but nothing illegal and something that with a huge crowd on hand will build a great deal of pressure for Osaka. Another key will be a quick start. Serena has a tendency to go down a break to open her matches. Whether this is by design, with the intent to mentally defeat her opponent when she breaks back, or is simply a slow start that always occurs, it isn’t a good plan against Osaka. Osaka started her match against Hsieh slowly. She was outclassed early against Muguruza also. Osaka thrives on finding a rhythm. People indicated she made 0 unforced errors in the third set against Mugu, and it makes sense. What makes her unbeatable is that once she finds her timing, her pace and mobility create a pressure on her opponent’s offense that most cannot outcompete. It takes time to find that timing though, and as errors build she can get tentative. The first set is likely a key for Serena, as the celebrating I do believe is enough to make Osaka resign herself to an L somewhat if the second set also becomes in question. Being a fan is tough in a competition, and I think Osaka has a great deal more depth than her interviews show, but with the history and Serena’s presence on court this has the feeling of a dangerous spot for Osaka. This is so tough haha. I really don’t know who gets over the finish line here, but the tour has a way of passing you by, so I somewhat think that Osaka’s extra power will make her a bit tougher of a test than Halep and we might see a spectacular match. I’m going to be honest, I kinda want to see Serena get the record. She’s got her faults, but she’s been a ridiculously consistent champion throughout the years, and watching her crush forehands and scream is amazing when it’s not happening to someone I bet on. I think it happens here if she gets through this match, but I think given her commitment to fitness it’ll happen this year anyway, with Wimbledon seeming extremely likely given her serving prowess. I can’t bring myself to write Serena in 3 though, because Sabalenka and Halep both underperformed and Osaka has brought her best game almost every time these two have played. Osaka in 3.

Here are a list of things that all the semifinalists definitely do not look like because this post is serious. Djokovic definitely does not look like a grasshopper that’s just spotted someone that owes it money. Karatsev defiinitely does not look like an artist drew his body and a 6 year old drew his head. Medvedev definitely does not look like a gerenuk that snuck into Russian society. Tsitsipas definitely does not look like Keri Russell. Muchova definitely does not look like she eats small cookies during the changeovers when the camera’s not watching. Brady definitely does not look like she might secretly be some % muppet. Osaka definitely does not look like a sad pineapple. If these jokes are subpar, that’s just a testament to how serious the semifinals are. If I did not write one about Serena, that’s because I’m scared of her forehand. That may be suspicion, but nobody sits as still in the box as Muratoglou unless they have had a good breakfast of terror.