2021 Roland Garros ATP & WTA Semifinals
Unreal quality in the quarterfinals this week, capped off by some very strange night matches. Nadal, Djokovic, Tsitsipas, Krejcikova, Pavlyuchenkova, Zidansek, and Sakkari are all playing their absolute best heading into the semis. Zverev is there too. In the bracket contest, 230DentistAppt looks to have it locked up on the WTA side, and they led from start to finish so it’s well deserved. Canuck96 has taken the lead in the ATP, with DC founder kuklachert, vani, mrcod64, and happysandbag hot on his trail.
Krejcikova vs Sakkari :
Well this is pleasant. A hectic week and a half has assured us that there will be a brand new major champion on the WTA tour. This is normally a meteoric rise or a player catching fire, but these two both deserve to be here. Barbora Krejcikova has been in that Alexandrova/Kontaveit range at times, peaking at minor events and seeming to be able to play entire matches of offensive tennis without too many errors. It tends to be a plateau though, and the duration of majors seems to unravel the big hitters on tour. This past week Krejcikova won a title in Strasbourg though, and she has continued that run here in Paris. The hallmarks of her game are a very smooth rhythm from the baseline, and a big backhand. The thing that tends to unravel her quality is power, as her swings take a bit longer than some players on tour. Her serve is not as big as the best servers, but she does score with it at times and it’s often enough just for her to get a first ball to work with. Gauff’s run was tremendous, and her promise is obvious. Things got a bit nervy for both players in their quarterfinal, but Gauff could have squeaked by which has to be somewhat positive for her team even if it will lead to a few “what if” thoughts in the coming weeks.
Sakkari has just beaten the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament, but her work isn’t done yet. Today’s performance though, was the kind of quality that has to have other players on tour worried. Sakkari was already the fittest player on tour a season ago. A few seasons ago, her overall game was at the top level, but she didn’t have consistency. Last season her defending began unravelling a lot of top offenses, but she lacked scoring ability of her own. This season her forehand and serve have started to really click, and the problem for the tour when a player is even with them in terms of skill/defending is that the matches tend to then become a physical contest. Swiatek was able to hit with Sakkari today but was always the one looking to find an end to the rally. Sakkari’s defending and power led to a number of errors from Swiatek, who seemed to be sharp at times but not really in any sort of rhythm. For Sakkari, her serving and use of the dropshot when she had control of the rallies were big keys to holding her lead, and while the dropshot is a bailout for many players who “just want the rally to be over please oh please just give me the point,” Sakkari didn’t miss one today. It shows excellent composure and a lack of nerves. There is belief in her camp, and it is justified because she has simply outworked the rest of the tour in the gym.
For Swiatek, it was a tough spot to repeat. The draw opened up for her, but she is more of an exciting offensive talent than a consistent performer, and there was some evidence of frustration this week. A few hindrance issues on points where she seemed frantic to win (she slapped the ground with her racquet a few times on her opponents shots and waved her racquet around in a distracting manner while Kostyuk was coming to the net late in the match. A possibly unfortunate but also seemingly convenient timeout while down 6-4, 2-0 seemed like a bit of gamesmanship, but these days this seems like it is just a part of professional tennis. The competitive fire that leads us to do these things when we’re in a bind takes time to overcome (especially when it seems everyone is doing it), and Swiatek is sure to get there. It’s important along with this tiny tiny criticism to remember that she’s still very young (20 years old). She’s going to get physically stronger and mature a great deal as far as composure and tactics in the future, and that’s a scary prospect. Physically, today did look like a junior phenom against a full grown adult, but Sakkari makes most full grown adults look like children.
This effect is something we saw on full display in the men’s draw as well. The players who are just physically stronger (Nadal/Novak/Stefanos/Zverev) were able to maintain a higher level for longer, and the side effect of this being obvious to an opponent is that they begin to force shots. It pays so many dividends, and the only recourse for your opponents (besides insane offensive performances) is to put in the same work in the gym or lose. Sakkari has set the bar high and it’ll be interesting to see which of the younger players make the move to the high intensity plyometric & weight training that Maria has.
The path to victory for Sakkari in the semis is again to make this a physical battle, but she’ll want to continue to hit to the open court with her backhand to keep Krejcikova moving. Sakkari/Swiatek was a higher level than Gauff/Krejcikova, but Krejcikova is less inclined to go big than Swiatek. She plays a more measured offense and is willing to hit a sequence of shots to win the rally rather than looking to smoke every shot as Iga often does. It’s easy to get a bit wound up after a big victory and try to supply all the offense yourself, and Krejcikova does hold a win against Sakkari that took place this year (albeit on hardcourts). Sakkari has a better serve, better stamina, and a bigger forehand. Krejcikova has a better backhand and is on just a brilliant streak, so I would expect a classic match. It’s a big letdown spot, but nobody has really been able to break down Sakkari’s service games this week, so she should make her first final. Sakkari in 3.
Pavlyuchenkova vs Zidansek :
This is so well deserved for Pavlyuchenkova. She was one of the brightest young talents on tour, and the only knock on her career has been that people expected more. She’s churned out quality and consistency, but never those mercurial performances that launch you into the upper echelon. Against Rybakina, there was a sense that Pavs would eventually break through. Rybakina hits bigger and Pavs seemed a bit intent on playing aggressive early, but this wasn’t the best path for her. For a big server who isn’t the best defensively, you want to extend rallies and drag things out. It may seem like you’re playing into their hands a bit by letting them stay in rallies, but short points are always better for power players. Although Rybakina had her chances, she lost her legs a bit late in the first set. She won the tiebreak, but it seemed like she was somehow further away from the end of the match than Pavs was from a third set. In the third, the danger of playing a big serve was obvious. Rybakina continued to hold, and despite the WTA being a tour laden with breaks, these two held 9 games in a row before Pavlyuchenkova broke through.
Zidansek and Badosa played a very tight match, and where Pavs and Rybakina were swinging free, Zidansek and Badosa spent more time probing. A lot of “will you miss this?” attempts and shots hit with a bit too much margin to succeed were on display, and despite Badosa’s consistency, Zidansek was the player dominating a lot of the rallies. She has the type of forehand that Brady does, in the sense that it isn’t always being hit for a winner. It makes for a very difficult time when defending since the ball comes at you with a number of different speeds off of the same swing. It ended up being the biggest weapon on the court though, and the clay specialist has produced not only a huge upset but the best result of her career seemingly out of nowhere. She’s had quality for a while, but no real results at a major. Against Pavlyuchenkova there will be a bit of pressure on her to produce shots. Pavs is very good at reflecting power, and despite playing mostly offensive talents, she has been involved in a lot of big hitting baseline contests within these matches. I’m hesitant to say she hits bigger than Zidansek’s best forehands, but overall Pavlyuchenkova hits the ball bigger more often off of both wings. The same as Krejcikova, it’s not right to discount a player who has gotten this far, but besting Sabalenka and Rybakina mean that Pavs can likely deal with what Zidansek is offering, and the biggest problem she may face is pressure now that she is the favorite. Pavlyuchenkova in 2.
Djokovic vs Nadal :
This is really what we came for. Last year I ate it when analyzing this match. Nadal had seemed a bit subpar, and Novak was really playing great. This year, I would say Novak has a better chance to perform physically, because his draw has been pretty simple and he’s come through in straight sets most of the time. The problem, and I’m not sure I want to fall for it this year, is that Nadal isn’t looking inconsistent at all this year. His match with Diego was as good as I’ve seen him play, and although Diego pushed hard and played his best, Nadal managed to finish even stronger (winning the last set 6-0 with a flurry of frightening forehands). Nadal’s serving woes from the early clay season are gone. He’s crushing the ball. His defending is always world class, but he seems a bit more aggressive with the sharp angles on his backhand. His gamestyle this event has almost been confrontational, and whatever other player have offered has been responded to. It isn’t his style to deviate from a gameplan, but his quality has been so high that it seems that way. Late in the 3rd, Diego hit a clean return winner. Nadal then hit an ace. The response has just been there over and over, and I’m a Novak fan but I’m not sure he would have been able to dismiss Schwartzman as easily at the level he played at. No complaints, but it does seem like Diego plays Nadal in every single RG. I’d love to see him play Djokovic simply because I think it’d be entertaining, but for now I’ll just have to settle for the best two players playing each other when both are performing incredibly. Sigh.
As far as Djokovic’s semifinal, the first two sets was the most helpless you’ll see an offensive talent like Berretini look. He absolutely crushed his serve in early rounds, and was hitting his forehand today as hard as he has all event. It’s the “I can’t outlast this player so I’d better go for it” issue that I spoke about earlier. Not that it isn’t accurate, but Berretini comes into this match thinking that he needs to serve big on every serve and go big on every forehand. It results in some exciting but frantic tennis, and it leads to muscle fatigue much quicker when you think you need to exert. The tendency to “focus” by tensing up is a real strange phenomenon (picture a child tensing up to show that they’re listening intently or a person furrowing their eyes when they’re trying to show that they’re looking hard at something). The crowd got behind Berretini in the third which gave him a boost and the set, but Novak’s returning really negated his serving in the early parts of this match. In what’s becoming a theme this year, Novak’s match was paused when he had lost momentum and the entire crowd was sent home. Not his fault, but it felt very much like Berretini needed the crowd to bolster his energy levels. Unsurprisingly, two fans tried to avoid leaving. They really had the right idea, as the quality of play we were treated to after the break was outstanding. Both players held serve in their last 23 service games, and Matteo’s serve/forehand combo has proven that no amount of defense can really dismiss it anymore. If you’re looking for a darkhorse to win Wimbledon, its Berretini. Despite taking a long time to close this out, Djokovic seemed fresh at the end, even if he was frustrated. A very strange outburst in the last game saw him pretend to throw his racquet at his box, and he looked almost like he couldn’t control himself. His serve was excellent though in the late stages, and his speed didn’t look to fade.
For this match, I don’t see fatigue being an issue for Novak, but last year we did see that he doesn’t have a clear way to score on Nadal. There may have been some deviation from his normal game because he knew he didn’t have a full gastank, but he’ll have to really play perfect tennis to win. The good news for fans is, he’s capable of playing perfect tennis. The GOAT debate only rages on because all 3 of the players in the discussion have turned out numerous performances that simply astound us as fans. Tactically, there aren’t holes in either players game. Novak tends to go into the forehand to Nadal’s backhand exchange, and while this feels like a safe place, Nadal doesn’t really make errors from there and he tends to be able to pull the trigger on sharper angles and find a forehand when he needs to. This is an even battle but one where Novak expends more energy. Tired players use their backhand instead of a forehand because it’s more reliable and less energy intensive to produce. I’d like to see Djokovic go with what Sinner did early and send his forehand inside out. It opens up the court nicely and Nadal’s loopy crosscourt forehands lose a bit of zip and accuracy when he’s moving to the left. For Nadal, winning this match is about staying the course. He’s been matching his opponents’ levels thus far and they have faltered both mentally and physically. He needs to apply pressure and make Novak go to plan B. On clay, there really is no plan B. You need to outwork your opponent and commit yourself to every single point. This is about who can work harder and execute when they earn the chances. So far in history at this event, it’s been Nadal. I would wholeheartedly welcome a classic. It seems that Rafa has been a bit more effective offensively in the matchup though. Nadal in 4.
Zverev vs Tsitsipas :
Zverev is turning into a huge problem for a large chunk of the tour at majors. His slow starts are still there, but it seems (similar to Serena) that once he’s able to get going and get a lead that his opponents just fold. Davidovich Fokina had chances to win the first, but it was pretty obvious to most people that he was running on fumes. His open frustration after easy misses was understandable, and despite knowing your own body best there’s no good solution to employ when you’re tired. You’re always going to compete as hard as you can, and tennis isn’t a sport you can play at halfspeed. Zverev pulled away, and part of the trouble his opponents are running into is that returning his serves takes a huge physical toll. Constant lunging and emotional stress of trying to put balls back in play is tough. Fokina also struggled with his footwork on Zverev’s kick serve, and several times had to readjust to hit the ball after it moved. This physical toll is Zverev’s best chance in his next match, because despite his offensive performance thus far, he’s not the better player here.
Tsitsipas and Medvedev played a very strange match. There was no crowd, and it made for a flat contest even though the tennis was high quality. Medvedev should really have won the second set, and possibly the first, but there wasn’t a stretch in the match where he was the better player. Tsitsipas’ forehand was hitting the ball easily through the court, and Medvedev struggled to do the same. Tsitsipas’ backhand down the line is a beautiful shot, but his forehand opened the court so well that he never had to use it. The commitment he made to hitting the ball to the open court in this match had Daniil spending all his time defending, and Tsitsipas seemed inevitable to get a break. This pressure was evident, and the lack of a crowd hurt Medvedev’s chances for a comeback. Even had he won the second, it largely would have been a thief’s success. One bright point for Zverev and for Medvedev at the time was his almost 100% success rate with dropshots. Stefanos barely ran for a number of them, and this isn’t Zverev’s forte but the physical toll Tsitsipas may have endured could contribute to slowing him down. If you look at their draws so far, Zverev is in the finals of a 250, and Tsitsipas is in the semifinals of a major. Oscar Otte, Roman Safiullin, Laslo Djere, Clay Nishikori, and Davidovich Fokina as compared to Jeremy Chardy, Pedro Martinez, John Isner, Pablo Carreño-Busta, and Daniil Medvedev means Tsitsipas should be a bit more fatigued, but also will be more comfortable playing at his best level.
Zverev represents a different test from Medvedev, and what works in his favor is the weight of his shot. Tsitsipas will have a good chance to move him and draw errors, but he was relatively safe from shanks and poor timing against Medvedev and these may creep in if he tries to redirect too often against Zverev. The serving battle favors Zverev, but they’ll be playing during the day and no rain is scheduled so it will be hot outdoor conditions. Tsitsipas should fare just as well as far as holding serve, and I expect him to start a bit sharper than Zverev. It’ll be hard to really dismiss Zverev. His serve is world class, he covers the court extremely well, and he has one of the best backhands in neutral rallies. These really are the semifinal matches that feature the best players. Zverev is one of the players that has troubled Nadal in the past, but I don’t think he’ll get there this time. Tsitsipas in 4.