Sep 09, 2021

2021 US Open ATP Semifinals Predictions

Same as the women’s draw, the men have wound up with the best 4 players left playing in the semifinals. This is going to be good. Almost as good as the wine the Tennis Channel announcers are drinking. Speaking of good, the bracket comps have a number of really good brackets going, with UofLForTheWin leading the men’s and Juja13 leading the women’s. Businessman looks to have the odds comp locked up, with an ROI of 97% which is, literally, absurd. Also, there are two incredible tennis matches tomorrow, so here are some thoughts.

Medvedev vs Auger-Aliassime :

Great tournament for Alcaraz, who had to withdraw with an injury to his upper right leg. Luckily, it seemed like a muscle injury so he should be able to get things fixed and continue what is sure to be a bright career. It’s great to label him as the next Nadal, but before this event most (including me) were labelling him as a clay phenom and weren’t sure how or when he’d get there on hardcourt. With the seemingly disappointing next gen results it’s good to remember that in an individual sport, it’s really hard to get big results. Most young players have a breakout performance on tour, and then struggle for a while to repeat this. The coaches on tour are mostly babysitters for adult children’s attitudes and complaints, but they also scout shot patterns and tendencies and once the book is out on how to beat someone, they tend to struggle for a while. I personally was already annointing Carlos as the next Nadal after this week, but I also couldn’t see how Karatsev could slump after his great play, and now he looks pretty emotionally exhausted out there and is very error prone. I’ll say the same about Van De Zandschulp, who acquitted himself well against Medvedev despite seeming like he really couldn’t pull it off. Part of what makes these players so promising is that as tennis players progress in tournaments, they get more comfortable. Winning multiple rounds is huge for your confidence, and the crowds and hype increasing as you go make you play a bit for the crowds. Not in a sense of showboating, but in playing your best and showcasing your ability. Anyway, one thing is for sure. Both these dudes have cool names.

The first thing that jumped out to me about this match is the price. Medvedev is sat at -625 which is a very high line for this situation. Auger-Aliassime is playing the best tennis of his career. How good that is is impacted by expectations. If he were just a good junior talent and we weren’t sure how high he’d rise, this would make sense. He’s projected by most analysts to be a top 10 player at some point in the very near future though, and given his wins this year against Roberto Bautista Agut, Khachanov, Berretini, Zverev, Federer (asterisk for his form being not 100%), Harris, and Shapovalov, it’ss hard to really say that he isn’t already to that level even while playing poorly. We don’t need Auger-Aliassime to play perfect tennis all the time, but he has been somewhat inconsistent over the past few years, so winning these matches anyway is a huge signal that the kid is going to meet expectations. Their only previous meeting was a third setter in 2018 Toronto that Medvedev won 9-7 in a third set tiebreaker, so expectations would be that Felix will do better here since his game this fortnight has been at a new peak. Earlier this year Medvedev met Djokovic in the AO finals, and it was set at close to even odds. This seemed like a clear position on Medvedev by the books, since Novak/Nadal are the biggest markets in the year, and the Australian Open has been Novak’s best tournament for forever. When Djokovic rolled, I felt a bit confused, but what has become clear based on reviewing pricing prior to and since then is that Medvedev is a huge $ draw for the books. Due to this, the line is a little nudged towards Medvedev’s side, and not a true indicator of the results.

This match really does come down to two things; the first is how FAA’s forehand will affect Medvedev. So far the power and pace he’s put on the ball have been enough to stifle RBA’s length, and to actually hit right past other opponents. He hits inside-in forehands that are 3-4 feet from the sidelines and his opponents still seem to move late to them. Novak hit some lasers last night, but it has seemed like Auger-Aliassime has had the biggest forehand throughout this event. If Medvedev is able to just reflect this power and keep the ball low, then he should outmaneuver Felix. Technically, Auger-Aliassime’s backhand is not as solid as Medvedev’s, and his serving has been tremendous which puts it just at the same level as Medvedev’s. Daniil has looked unbeatable so far, despite an intriguing stretch from Botic Van De Zandschulp where his fluid baseline play and Medvedev’s court position seemed to give him a chance. This is the second big storyline in this match: Medvedev’s return position. He’s been adopting a very deep return position for a while on tour. This is a strategy Nadal employs against big servers to great effect, but it isn’t ideal all the time. A talented and consistent offensive player is starting off with much less pressure and Medvedev doesn’t really hit the returns with enough height (the way Nadal does) to really keep his opponents from winding up inside the baseline with a forehand on their first or second shot of the rally. Auger-Aliassime is not bad enough to implode against this tactic, so he will be able to maintain leads if Medvedev throws in a poor service game. Thus far Medvedev’s breaks of serve have been a result of too much plenty. He has been winning so easily and hitting so many winners that he is bound to miss a few, and when he does his opponents have woken up. Still, there has been a pretty clear commitment from him to move quietly through this draw. He’s barely let opponents out of rallies via errors, hasn’t made any noise or gotten upset, and he’s one of the freshest players left at this stage.

Medvedev can sit in the backhand to backhand rallies fairly comfortable, and despite not being a cannon, his own forehand creates low angles very well. His movement and defending are the best on tour outside of Nadal and Djokovic, and one reason I think he can deal with Auger-Aliassime’s big game is how well he trades with Rublev when they play. Rublev is always right there in the rallies and Medvedev comes up with the final shot. The scores and rallies seem close, but they tend to almost always have the same winner. He’s a level ahead of Auger-Aliassime, but I still think this is a much different match than he’s faced so far and he will lose at least one set. Medvedev in 4-5.

Djokovic vs Zverev :

The best thing about Novak Djokovic is his ability to make you forget how good he is. Mundane performances against Rune and Nishikori had many people wondering whether he’d step it up against Brooksby, and whether lack of matches after the Olympics was the issue. Is he losing the first set on purpose? There he seemed to play possum with Jenson, and ran him around in what was a highly entertaining but still subpar performance from Novak. Leading into the Berretini match, I was almost scared that this Djokovic was an underdog against Zverev. Those thoughts were quickly ended. If you were in the discord chat you got to see me typing “wtf” every other shot. Djokovic had a somewhat slow start, but the pace he uncorked as the match progressed was the same stuff that saw him make his way past Medvedev in straight sets in Australia. It’s so easy to forget the power he has in his game because he plays such a measured approach all the time, but Berretini appeared outgunned in this one on both wings, despite having one of the biggest forehands on tour.

I’d actually like Berretini to start slicing exclusively against Novak on his backhand side. The two-handed backhand is a more potent offering, but the fact that he makes mistakes with it negates it’s effectiveness, and calls attention to it as a target. He doesn’t hit it big enough or with enough angle to make Djokovic miss, and those rally ball errors sharpen your opponents focus. They’re more likely to keep putting the ball there and it’s easy to start thinking about errors while you’re in rallies. I can’t count how many times I was hit into a tough but returnable spot on the court and the thought “they hit it there because they think you’re gonna screw up; you gotta definitely make this shot” has popped up, followed by me making an error anyway. The slice gives up control and involves a bit more running in rallies, but you have a slightly better chance giving him no pace to work with and getting in a rhythm with your slice than you do exchanging two-handers when you know that’s what he wants to do.

The debate about Novak losing the first set to demoralize his opponents is a testament to how dominant he looks once he wins the second. Your heart almost sinks, and his opponent starts to look a bit flat. That’s basically what breeds amazing tennis though. Once it becomes established that one player isn’t going to make errors or give you anything, there’s no sense in pushing or isolating one specific wing, so all that’s left is to produce the right shot for each moment. Berretini is not there yet, but for a guy who seems completely helpless against Djokovic, he won a set at all 4 majors. He can improve his backhand, especially since some of the issue is footwork. The big forehands on tour tend to get handcuffed on their backhand wing more, since their initial footwork is geared towards running around the shot. This makes the backhand a late decision too often, and players like Sock and Berretini tend at times to look like they’re fighting off their backhands.

While Novak is getting credited for losing sets on purpose to permanently break the spirit of nextgen players, Zverev is winning in very steady fashion. He seems to be able to maintain a level that forces his opponents to redline, and as the match goes on he just pulls away. This is a bit different from Novak’s perceived ability to turn it up as the match goes on, but is equally effective for winning at majors. Harris played solid in the first set, and Zverev blinked first as most of Harris’ opponents have. Serving for the set was probably the last time that the buzz in the crowd involved Zverev losing. What makes Zverev tougher now than in the past is his emotional tolerance. He complained at set point in the 1st set tiebreaker, but then he put the return in play. When he goes down an early break now, he continues playing. There is significantly less quitting in him, and this was most of the reason why he lost in the past. His serve is ridiculous at this point, and when he is in trouble in games, it saves him in a manner that reminds me a bit of Kyrgios and Isner. He’s become a servebot, who also has the second best backhand on tour and a forehand that has finally stopped missing. He created some nice crosscourt angles in this match, and when he went down the line it wasn’t for a clean winner but with shape so that he could take another step forward. It’s more mature and more calm play, and it makes me wonder how much more I could appreciate it if I didn’t kinda hate him.

This semifinal feels like a final mostly because these two are playing at their best level and these were the two favorites for the title. Prior to the Berretini match, I wasn’t sure Djokovic’s hitting was sharp enough to hurt Zverev, but now it appears he is very dialed in. The -244 price tag for Novak is pretty much near the bottom of his range, and as much as I dislike Zverev, I tend to agree. Novak is outgunned in this situation, and Zverev has just beaten him on a major stage. What sits in Novak’s favor is that he’s significantly stronger in the mental department, and his returning is better than anyone Zverev has faced. If you think Novak hasn’t been thinking about the Olympics, look no further than his post-match interview where, when asked about the match, he reminded the interviewer that he was up a set and a break in that match. This will have real tour implications as well. For Novak, the calendar slam eclipses any mention of people missing from the events (Fed/Nadal), and sets him up to possibly do it again next year. It will definitely increase the number of “Can we say that Novak is the GOAT now?” posts on r/tennis, but perhaps it also will convince his fans that they don’t need other people to change their favorite players in order for them to consider Novak the best. I think we also might see Djokovic breathe a sigh of relief for one of the first times on tour if he wins. He’s been seeming a lot more honest and human lately, and I think the expectation and pressure and slight that he perceives don’t let him let his guard down. It really would be cool to see him win. On the other hand, Zverev winning two in a row against Novak on a huge stage makes it look like the end of the Djokovic era. At some point, somebody has to pass him by, and Zverev has been built specifically to match up well against the big 3. He’s been successful against them in 2/3 structure even while losing to other next-genners and his serve is going to make him competitive here. If Zverev is able to beat Novak here and win this tournament, I’d expect him to win at least half of the majors over the next few years. No one else in his age group is really improving their game at the same rate, which is partially a testament to how dense he is and how poorly he competed before, but also a scary thought. He’s about 2/3 as good now as he’s going to be, which is how I feel about Auger-Aliassime also.

So who wins? It feels like an even match. Zverev makes a perfect villain for Djokovic, but Djokovic has won in dominant fashion yet still lost a handful of sets. Zverev looks to have bigger weapons and his movement give him a chance in any rally, but the barrier for him has always been best of 5 matches. For me, that’s the small edge, and Djokovic is the player I feel is more likely to dig deep if he does get down early. This should be an absolute classic, and one of the most interesting finishes to a major in a long time. When’s the last time that we weren’t really sure who would win? Probably the last time Djokovic convinced us he wasn’t going to, and then did. Djokovic in 5.