May 30, 2022

2022 Roland Garros Men's & Women's Quarterfinals Part Un

The Medvedev Cilic match hasn’t started yet so I decided to post tomorrow’s matches first. I’ll post the following day’s matches tonight (~11pm EST).

Djokovic vs Nadal :

I googled the h2h between these two and my computer froze. This is number 60 in a story that has captivated and rewarded tennis fans for over ten years. Suddenly I feel like I’m watching Game of Thrones, because this is not how I want it to end. Nadal has been very open with his struggles with Müller-Weiss syndrome, and it almost seems like he’s trying to get comfortable saying that this will be his last Roland Garros. He made a sort of coercive statement about it being his last RG and that he’d at least like to have a day match, but I think Nadal is not the type to really play up an injury for gamesmanship purposes. It was pretty clear in the match against Felix that Nadal’s movement is a step slower. He can still ball, and make gets, and his tennis is solid, but he doesn’t have that second gear of reckless abandon and hustle that he normally does. This suddenly makes him beatable for guys (like FAA) whose occasional errors meant that they could never hang in long-term against Nadal’s next gear.

Auger-Aliassime played one of the best matches he ever has. His ballstriking is top tier, and his serve is good enough to get him inside the baseline almost all the time. Nadal has been taking a slightly closer return position in this event, and the slight limitation of options gave Felix a chance. FAA served very well out-wide, and the announcers criticized the predictability of his second serves but I think they overlook that clay is not about aces. Clay is about minimizing errors and tempering aggression. It’s chess first and once you have that consistency, you can look to mix it up. Check the stats for the South American clay specialists, entire matches go by with a double fault being served. Contrast that with Zverev who is a ridiculous athletic talent with all the shots and can’t get over the hump because of a constant double-faulting cloud that looms over him and can’t go big on his forehand because he tightens up in big moments and finds the net. Felix is on the right path, and it has been a steady upward trajectory. When he adds 10-20 lbs of muscle as he matures, he’s going to be able to do all the things people are asking for. For now, he almost beat Nadal and foot issues aside that is a tremendous result to build on. As a next gen guy, losing a close match to the top guys is tough, but this wasn’t a choke job or some 2-0 to 2-3 emotional disaster. This was an even shootout that Nadal happened to win.

Djokovic’s match against Diego was faster than I expected, but Novak has been very sharp this tournament. The usual set losses in early rounds that we see on hardcourt haven’t been there, and he looks to be getting into that zone where he genuinely wants the ball to come back so he can play more tennis. That makes him a deserved favorite here, and unfortunately he will be the villain in this match so his team will need to prepare for some crowd interference. Novak has done nothing wrong here, but Nadal is the injured lion, the amazing story, and the crowd will want to will that into existence. While Novak’s fitness and form make him the likely winner, it is important to remember how every one of these high profile matches completely shifts the GOAT debate. A year ago Nadal was beating Novak so badly in the first set here and the conversation was all “how did we hope Novak can beat this guy” “no one can beat this guy” and Djokovic turned things around but for about 45 minutes he looked very much like the same guy who lost in straights the year before. Nadal hit a physical wall there (looked to be more fatigue than anything) and lost, but writing either of these guys off is just a grievous error most of the time.

Here are the bright spots for Nadal. First, he’ll have the crowd. He was extremely subdued against FAA and never really Vamos’d it up until the end. Here, any huge point he wins will give him a boost. Painkillers can help with pain, but adrenaline is the real savior of the injured player and the crowd’s energy can give him that. Second, Nadal has played so many high profile clay matches that he has a B game. He’s able to buy himself time, he’s able to conserve energy, and he has adjusted his own play as his physical ability deteriorated. I think we will see him going a bit bigger on serve, and attempting to keep the match at a medium pace. The third is that even in his slightly diminished state, he still has his forehand. In his loss to Alcaraz, he made Carlos look extremely off balance in the set that he won. The match was really just about who got to swing a forehand first, and Nadal’s dominated things when he did. Novak had his own fatigue issues early in his comeback, so there is a glimmer of hope there if Nadal is able to get this to a 4th or 5th. The last is just that all our squinting at his movement and questioning his results is speculative. Nadal has not quit a match with foot pain, or a broken rib, or any of these other issues. He is and has been in the best shape of anyone the tour has ever seen, and despite his gloomy honesty about his career being near the end, he’s said himself he would not be at the tournament if he didn’t think he could win.

The odds for this are -227 for Novak and +185 for Nadal, and I think that’s about right to balance the money. The FAA match juxtaposed with the Schwartzman beatdown, and the Nadal foot issue are going to see a lot of people doubting Nadal, and despite it being the worst time to bet on a sporting event, lots of people are going to want to predict this. For Novak to get through here, he’ll have to stick to a very Novak game plan. With metatarsal or foot pain in general, you can still run, but changing direction is difficult. Novak’s patterns are generally to hit a bit below his max, and to try to fool you with smooth changes in direction. None of the shots are hit for a winner, but they test the defenses and if he can get his opponent thinking, his feints and how long he holds his shots can pay dividends. So Djokovic will want to go behind Nadal as often as he can. As this pays dividends, he’ll want to start getting to net as well. When your movement is slightly hampered, the tendency when you’re changing direction quickly is to choose the shot that buys you the most time for recovery, and this means squash gets and slices. Opening the racquet face buys you time, but it’s a bad reflex since Novak will be looking to capitalize on this. As well as Djokovic has been serving also, it’ll be interesting to see how Nadal’s more aggressive court positions works out.

It’s the same match we’ve seen 50+ times, but every single iteration just feels like a brand new experience. I’m not 100% what to expect, but I think it’ll be pretty close with Djokovic just edging Nadal out. Maybe an asterisk because of the injury, but I’d expect Nadal to leave it all out there and I have been humbled many times while doubting this legend of the game. If this is the last time we see him, I’ll be happy for him to make my predictions look foolish one last time. Djokovic in 5.

Zverev vs Alcaraz :

This is a passing of the torch that will likely bother Zverev. Carlos Alcaraz has already been anointed by the press and fans, and the most annoying part about it is they’re actually right this time. We’ve received a million heirs to the throne in the past 10-15 years, and only a select few have even come close to backing it up on the big stages. I’d point to Thiem as the guy who put in the work to eclipse the lofty expectations, and Alcaraz is on that same path. When I look at Novak and Nadal’s longevity, I look to the work they did in the past as the reason. If you train harder than everyone else, if you take things more seriously than everyone else, you begin to border on the robotic level. Bubliks will make jokes, Tsitspas’ will looked stunned, and Zverev’s will yell at their boxes, and this will be your view as you pass them by. Nobody needs to be #1 on tour, but some people want it bad enough to get there. Alcaraz does. His physical progress is clear, he plays better in every consecutive tournament, and he’s peaking here just at the right time. Critics can point to his problems with lefties, and the ARV match, but those critics are dense enough to not realize that ATP tennis is a game of thin margins and ARV would be in the second week of Roland Garros every year if he had a serve. The kid is as good as they say.

Moving to Zverev, the kid is also as good as they said, but he listened when they told him that.
Zverev’s talent has been dragging him forward, and it is an intense battle. This is a guy in the top 5 in the world who struggled in all three sets yesterday against Zapata Miralles. It was great play from Miralles but it’s Zverev allowing players to compete by taking a passive approach to the game. Him and his team seem to be aiming for the serve to be the big weapon and for Zverev’s overall weight of shot and consistency to make him an unplayable servebot. It’s a nice idea: a servebot who can’t just be moved around simply during rallies. It is the wrong approach for someone like Zverev though. One step inside the baseline, he is unplayable. On the baseline, he is maybe as good as Hurkacz. Behind the baseline, he’s at best Ivashka. He’s made good physical progress and looks stronger, and his tendency to pull away as matches progress in the early rounds does show that his opponents can’t hang at his level for long, but we kinda already knew that. Zverev and his team are gameplanning to win matches that he is going to win no matter which approach he takes.

Can Zverev beat Alcaraz? It’s a yes, but if Zverev beats Carlos it will involve a level of focus and commitment and tennis that is brand new from him. We keep waiting for some of these next gen guys to snap and turn into the next Federer or Nadal etc, but I just don’t see it happening overnight. They’re building off a base that has issues and they’re not addressing those issues. If no one on Zverev’s team can sit him down and say “stop talking, stop complaining, stop being results oriented on court, play hard and shake hands” then he will remain a disappointing player to cheer for. The good thing for Alcaraz is that he’s already put in a number of years taking his career more professionally than most. When he’s in a tough spot, nothing really breaks down in his game. When he has to make a get on a break point, his lob lands in and deep. When he goes for a big forehand, he tends to make it, and he goes big often enough that it isn’t some tense infusion of aggression like when Zverev “WAHAAAAs” a forehand on a big point.

The problem with Alcaraz’s media coverage is that he hasn’t won a major yet. They’re celebrating something that hasn’t happened, and that can leave a young player with a very empty feeling if they don’t get there, as if the future is now moving further away from their reach. It also removes the great joy of winning as a surprise. Many overhyped champions feel a sense of relief when they finally win, as if the greatest triumph of their career is just a checkmark. There is pressure on him that is undue at this point, but I do think him and Novak are playing the finals when they meet in the semifinal.

That’s all hype, but Alcaraz’s play backs it up. Khachanov was in rare form this week, and didn’t disappear against Alcaraz, but he was outcompeted throughout. Alcaraz has that Nadal factor where he just keeps coming. You break, you breathe a sigh of relief, and you’re suddenly down 0-30. So for Alcaraz to win here against Zverev, he just has to stay the course. Zverev will have to bring his best game and he hasn’t so far this week. That’s the reason behind the odds (-435 for Alcaraz). Zverev has a serve that can make this close, one of the best backhands on tour, and he covers the court well. He can conceivably make this an ugly battle the same way ARV did, but we’re not asking a conceited child to be a mentally strong champion. I just don’t see it happening. I expect the forehand battles to be where Zverev really gets bossed around. He tends to leave his short and Alcaraz is really good at knowing when to hit dropshots off short balls. Alcaraz previously had some backhand issues with going down the line, but he’s ironed those out in the past month or so so this is all uphill for Zverev. There is also no pressure in this particular matchup for Alcaraz. Federer and Nadal and Novak are the guys that Zverev was designed to beat, and he succeeds against them at times because he is that younger player coming to threaten their rule. Alcaraz has nothing to lose here, and everything to gain. If Zverev plays his best, Alcaraz in 5. If Zverev serves great, Alcaraz in 4. If Zverev is who I think he is, Alcaraz in 3.

Fernandez vs Trevisan :

Ok. Not really who I expected but both these players deserve to be here. Fernandez seems like she’s going to win 4-5 majors just on the tenacity she plays with. Anisimova has one of the sharpest and most relentless offenses on tour, but Fernandez was able to compete long enough to take the edge off her game. While everyone (myself included) is gushing about Fernandez’s defending, she also is becoming one of the best big match servers on tour. She hits her spots very well for a smaller player, and mixes in some sharp T serves from the ad side that make it clear she’s willing to lose big matches if she feels the moment is right for any shots at any time. This makes you harder to play against, but the doubly good news (that is lost on so many top athletes) is that when you are actually good, you tend to make these shots. You’re taking a risk on paper, the shot is low percentage on paper, but these are the rules and strategies that people teach when they’re teaching someone to play. As a professional at a sport, not only are you the best at what you’re doing, but you can change the game. Look at racquetball players 30 years ago and today. The game evolves and what is seen as hyper-aggressive becomes the peak method of play. With tennis, the net keeps things from getting too crazy, but how much tennis do you need to play before you can execute. I love Fernandez’s attitude on court, and Anisimova gave us a great run and has an equally admirable balance out there.

Fernandez’s opponent will be one of the first that isn’t trying to knock her over. Since the start of this event, Trevisan has focused on giving her opponents a healthy diet of height and spin. It’s the same strategy Azarenka employed to great success against Teichmann, and it has let her cruise past opponent after opponent that I thought would solve the puzzle. Trevisan is in the second week of a major when many thought her heroic RG run last year would be the highlight of her career. This match is interesting because Fernandez and Trevisan are both looking to do the same thing, and they do it in incredibly different ways. Both are working their opponents backhands, but Leylah does it with topspin and Martina does it with height and spin. Both stick to the lefty pattern of going behind their right-handed opponents, and both possess a really crafty way of going down the line once the court is opened up sufficiently. I really didn’t get too many right in rd 4 on the WTA side, and the truth is these matches are all there for the taking by these players. I think Fernandez is going to be able to defend well enough to shut down Trevisan’s run, and her own serve and backhand are the biggest weapons on the court. It won’t be quick though, and this may devolve (or evolve honestly) into a moonball battle that I will greatly enjoy watching. People hate on the moonball, but I haven’t seen one player on tour deal with it well yet. Sasnovich was a huge win, but I think that Fernandez hits bigger and is more durable physically. Fernandez in 3.

Stephens vs Gauff :

This is a gift. I’m so guilty of expecting Stephens’ effort level to be low in minor events that I managed to forget what it looks like when she steps it up in a major. She’s always more focused on the big titles, but the tour has such depth that it’s been a while since she had a run like this. RG is where she has the most wins of any major on tour, and her last one was ridiculously impressive. 12 games in a row against Teichmann is already insane, but the pace at which she won them was what was most impressive. I actually googled the match after it disappeared from the scoreboard because I thought Teichmann must have retired for it to have ended so soon. The only thing I hate about Sloane peaking here and making one more big push at a major title is that she’s playing Gauff.

Let’s talk about Gauff. Let’s talk about a player whose Wimbledon run made me sure she was the next #1. I loved her service motion and her aggression on whatever came back. Add in that she’d extend rallied with absurdly fluid retrieves and lobs, and I didn’t really see how anyone would beat her once she kinda got her adult strength. Then things went sideways. Not from a results standpoint, as she’s a top player and has moved steadily up the rankings. She’s won matches and made and won finals. Just from a tactics standpoint, I felt like she was playing very defensive and passive in stretches. It was like watching a great server become a pusher, and it confused me (same story with Zverev honestly who went from laser groundstrokes for winners to playing generic tactics from behind the baseline). Gauff also has matches where she seems terribly impatient with rallies, and sprays errors wildly. Her forehand motion can become tense, and people began to question whether she needed to change it. This is all the scrutiny and criticism that great talents get lumped upon them, and it is a heavy burden, so you can imagine how happy I was to watch her play this week. Against Mertens, she was unplayably solid. Elise changes direction and pace in the rally nonstop, and probes for any errors. Cori’s focus was unparalleled. She kept the ball coming back and forced one of the more consistent players on tour into errors. I love it. I love to see it.

In this next match, I’m a little surprised to see Gauff as a two to one favorite. She certainly has a higher upside than Sloane, but Stephens brings a combination of what Mertens and Kanepi did. She hits bigger than Gauff, and is just as steady as Mertens on defense. This is the sort of match that has implications on the title. If Gauff can win here, after what Stephens did to Teichmann, her runs at majors might start happening early than we expected. There is the normal burnout when young players are dealing with the grind of the tour in their first couple seasons, but that will transition to experience as Gauff goes so this would be a tremendous win. As far as the tennis, neither needs to deviate from their previous plans. The rallies will be heavy hitting and both are extremely quick around the court. I think Gauff serves a little better, but Stephens is more likely to bring exactly the same level throughout the match and that might be the key. Gauff has had the benefit thus far of being slightly better in one or two departments than her opponents, so this is a good test. Regardless of the results, these two playing well is great for tennis. I do think Sloane will outlast Gauff though, as the pressure of the moment can be tough for a young player. Stephens in 3.