May 08, 2021

2021 Madrid Open ATP Semifinals

Semifinals time in Madrid, after another in a series of wild results bounces Rafael Nadal out of the tournament. I look forward to all the new “we are in Rome” memes. Hard to call anyone a clear favorite at this point, but here are some thoughts.

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Thiem vs Zverev :

It’s rare that Nadal misses a shot, but to spend a whole match missing shots almost felt like a new season of a show I don’t want to watch. Zverev put on a very impressive serving performance, and again his weight of shot proved to give Nadal trouble. Nadal struggled to hit with any depth, didn’t make many returns that didn’t see Zverev moving forward and creating an angle, and he missed a number of passes which was even more uncharacteristic. The statisticians harped on Nadal having to deal with a much higher bouncing ball than he prefers, but it just seemed like he was all out of sorts today. Nadal being Nadal, I think many of us kept thinking the tide would turn, but Zverev really never gave him a chance as he kept errors to a minimum and his 2nd serve was effective all match. Some mumbling of strategic losses was made across the internet, but there isn’t too much reason for Nadal to duck Thiem given his less than stellar form right now, so it’s more than likely that Zverev is simply a stylistic nightmare for Nadal. It’s kinda growing somewhat alarming that Nadal has lost so many sets to start the clay season, but the altitude in Madrid and a bad opponent are things we can expect him to shrug off.

Thiem and Isner had about the match you’d expect, but somehow avoided playing a single tiebreaker, much to the dismay of everyone looking for “secure” props. Thiem’s returns were mostly sky-high lobs that he utilized to buy himself time to get back in position, but Isner handles these as well as anyone, and an early break was enough for Isner to close out the first set. Thiem didn’t go too big or play too many angles, but the spin on his shots threw off Isner’s timing over and over, and playing it safe is generally the way to go when your opponent’s movement and defense are a major liability. It was a great run for Isner, and Rome won’t be as beneficial for the servers but he is likely to keep a good rhythm and accuracy going for the next few weeks.

Thiem and Zverev is a rivarly that Thiem has really dominated. He leads the H2H 8-2 and clay is his best surface. Zverev’s serving can’t be overlooked, but Thiem did have some good practice dealing with Isner’s offerings, which are a bit faster than Zverev’s despite having slightly less kick. Beating Nadal isn’t something to overlook either, and part of my trouble in analyzing Zverev matches is that his mental game is his biggest weakness. Will he be supremely confident after beating Nadal? That spells disaster. I’m not sold on Zverev just because I don’t think Thiem will give him the unforced errors that Nadal did. This will be a close contest though, because Zverev’s serving and offense didn’t lapse against Nadal, and Thiem is not at his peak yet. The later the rounds get, the more making predictions feels like storytelling. Earlier in events you can get an idea of expected outcomes from current levels and recent results or just by comparing market sizes vs what prices the books offer. At the end of an event though, there generally is no outcome that doesn’t make sense. Many players who are not normally in these positions are at their peak, and as we don’t usually get peak vs peak on tour often enough to really be confident in who’s better. That last issue is what matters here though. Who is better. Who can negate their opponent’s abilities, and who can execute when they do have opportunities. Zverev is at a higher level on serve, but Thiem is a better player overall. The backhand exchanges are likely to be relatively safe for both players, and forehand to forehand I would expect Thiem to get the better of things. If Zverev rolls Nadal and then beats Thiem (even in his current form), it’s time to start regarding him as a contender for Rolan Garros and I’ don’t feel ready for that yet. Thiem in 3.

Ruud vs Berretini :

This is so well deserved for Ruud. For 5 seasons now he has manufactured perfect sets of tennis on clay and hasn’t deviated from the plan despite the results not always coming in the win/loss column. His forehand was almost a cannon but now he’s getting full rotation on his swing and is hitting with such pace that his opponents really have been at a loss for what to do. His backhand seems like the best option but he hits it with good height and length. His game may be a bit more about shape and power, but he reminds me in quality of Carreño Busta. The type of player who generally will be a tiny bit outclassed against the top of the tour, but who will push them to the limit. He has notched some really good wins and the pace he kept up against Bublik was such that the talented Kazakhstani ran out of gas in the second set after getting broken late in the first to go down a set. 7-5, 6-1 is a touch easier that the marathon that Berretini and Garin played. I had not only the result backwards for that one, but whose energy would run out. Garin started off quick playing at a feverish pace on defense. Him and Berretini had some amazing rallies but it seemed that Garin would earn the error at the end as Berretinis serve lost range at 5-5. His serve is worth mentioning as he could really stay on the front foot against Ruud if he serves that well again. As the match progressed Berretini continued to push the issue and Garin wasn’t able to keep defending. He’ll be a threat for the rest of the clay season, but for now his tournament is over.

Ruud and Berretini seems like forehand heaven, and I was surprised to see that Ruud had won their previous meetings. Ruud is a bit of a clay specialist, but Berretini has been the more premier tour player for quite some time. That may be evening now, and with the H2H lead in his pocket and having just beaten Tsitsipas and spent a lot less time on court, he should be the fresher player here. Berretini’s serve and forehand are not to be overlooked, and he has traditionally been one of the clutchest players on tour, but Ruud has a slight mentality edge in that he’s looking to win points by wearing down his opponent and Berretini is trying to go right through him. Similar to the match above, the big server can’t be counted out. Berretini’s offense may be top-tier, but he executes it very consistently. Ruud should win though, and it would be strange to have past success as a worse player and lose in this one. Ruud in 3.