2022 US Open Men's & Women's Semifinals
Khachanov vs Ruud :
The alarm strikes 6am. Khachanov opens his eyes. One at a time, no reason to rush the process. He stretches out, despite his arms and legs overstretching the edges of the bed by a good bit. He is as giant as he is handsome, though he be not a giant.
“You awake?” he whispers.
“Yeah bro,” says his best pal Rublev from the other bunk bed.
“I’m worried I’m going to win the US Open, bro” admits Khachanov.
“Hey bro, hey,” says Rublev, jumping up to pat his pal on the chest. “So is everyone else” He is a wholesome nugget with a heart of gold.
“I feel better now, thanks” said Khachanov, as the room slowly began to blur.
The alarm rings again. Khachanov opens his eyes again. “Oh,” he murmurs, “It was just a dream. I should have known”
“Known what bro?” asks his best pal Rublev from the other bunk bed.
“Nothing,” says Khachanov. He slowly rubs his eyes and grows an entire beard while doing so. “Everything is good bro”
At the risk of embarrassing Netflix’s documentary, I will be sharing these precious peeks behind the scenes of the tour. I think it is important to know who is sleeping in bunk beds and who all the best pals are. Casper Ruud’s team has asked me to not expose his dreams though, as his work ethic is likely to make them all a reality. So instead I have been given a story from his childhood. In traditional Norwegian fashion, all the main characters are cats and it has been passed down in the form of a three verse ballad about cats. It is also not about his childhood. Also there are four verses. Enjoy.
Gather round ye children,
and hear about this cat,
who never smashed a racquet,
nor wore a backwards hat,
oh Catsper was a kitten,
but now he’s all grown up,
his fur is way too fluffy,
he made Moutet give up,
oh Catsper loves his pizza,
Denmark may hate this tune,
cuz cats they do meow,
at bitchass Holger Rune,
Catsper he wants this trophy,
it’s just two matches more,
but if you let him near it,
he’ll knock it on the floor.
Now that I have honored each player, it’s time to talk about tennis. There was a ton of tremendous tennis played in each of these players getting to the semifinals, but Khachanov has been the surprise of the week. The Kyrgios price opened at -350 and quickly moved above -400. At one point I thought I saw it nearing -600, but it moved back down to -400. This is a bad bad sign for Kyrgios backers. It’s one thing for the market to slow down at an adjusted price, but a large movement back down generally means trouble. Trouble arose in the form of Kyrgios arriving with a slight left calf/knee soreness. He seemed to be tentative putting his weight on it, and early in the match he insisted to his box that he didn’t want to play through it. I don’t like to armchair analyze people because it leads to storytelling, but it seemed like the classic “you didn’t beat me, I was injured” plan. The trouble with that story is that Kyrgios, after beating Medvedev, should have felt fairly confident coming into this game. An excuse wouldn’t really be necessary until a good stretch into the match. As such, I’m inclined to believe that he was feeling something early in the match.
His ability to sprint left and change direction was pretty much non-existent in this match, and his backhand seemed a bit off. This only visibly lasted about two sets, but those two sets meant enough time had elapsed that Kyrgios wasn’t able to pull the ripcord and retire. He also managed to steal the second set while not really moving much at all. This was a match where Kyrgios basically hung in there and looked for Khachanov to fold up, and it just never came. Khachanov made adjustments early in this match and his the out-wide serve from the duece court a huge chunk of the time. Kyrgios barely got a racquet on these, and Khachanov also hit his backhand down the line as often as he could which was often a clean winner against Kyrgios’ hampered movement. Anyone who’s competed injured will know that you can still exert physically, you just don’t want to. Kyrgios was looking to take minimum steps and play fewer balls, and the result was more errors than he’d made in the Medvedev match (58 against KK, 38 against DM).
Credit for this win goes to Khachanov, he never slowed down and never let Nick’s emotional outbursts and moping affect his play. He served almost as well as Kyrgios, and despite losing an unlikely 4th set, Khachanov broke to start the fifth and never looked back. Kyrgios had a look at a few break points, but good serves from Karen and poor choices from Nick (a bailout dropshot when he had both side of the court open at the service line, a few net pre-emptive net charges that got him swiftly lobbed/passed). A big key in this one was Khachanov hitting a heavy ball with a lot of topspin. It didn’t just instantly make Kyrgios hit errors, but Khachanov was the player hitting with margin and he was able to infuse pace without really risking too much.
In true Kyrgios fashion, he behaved poorly throughout this match. He yelled at his box. He yelled at his socks. He yelled at a man who stood shaving locks. It was a regression to the mean for Kyrgios, but I think this was a good experience. Why don’t you want to compete through a minor injury? The answer is, you know it’s going to be a good match but you also know you might not be able to win. Competing all-out during a loss is something that builds character, and grows the sport. For a scarecrow like Nick though, it represents a fear of finding out how good you are. Kyrgios thinks he lost here, but the fans won. The last three sets were good tennis, and Khachanov deserves to have a win against a worthy opponent. In the weeks/months to come Nick will see that the moon did not explode because he tried and lost a tennis match, and the pressure to win in front of his friends and loved ones may feel heavy, but he will see that they respect him more for battling out there. I predict, for probably the first time, that Kyrgios might actually train this offseason and might have an emotionally mature 2023.
Casper Ruud had a close but strange match with Matteo Berrettini. Berrettini kept the pressure on and started to get some momentum in the second set. He came back from 5-1 to 5-4, but Ruud serving it out really made the effort a bad choice. Berrettini was up 3-0 and 5-2 in the third, but he just wasn’t able to hit winners against Ruud and Casper did a tremendous job of keeping the ball on his backhand. He made it extremely obvious but the fact remains that Berrettini loses matches because of his backhand. He gave a pretty forlorn statement post-match about his loss being unacceptable, but Berrettini has had a great season after returning from injury and it’s understandable that he’d lose to a player whose volume of play and level of play just has his him playing a bit sharper at the moment.
Khachanov will like his chances in this next match, but there are some things I thought were fortuitous against Kyrgios that might not exist against Ruud. One is how often Khachanov served a winner when he was facing a break point. Kyrgios was guessing on a lot of serves. He usually does, but I felt he made Khachanov’s serving better than it was. Ruud will be putting a lot of balls back in play. He’s faster than Nick, and is capable of taking a deep return position and grinding out long rallies. Since Khachanov’s patterns are a bit conservative, I think this benefits Ruud. The only players left that I see beating Ruud from neutral at the baseline are Sinner and Alcaraz.
Casper winning this in less than 5 will depend a lot on Ruud’s ability to land first serves. If he’s serving well, I really think he can win the first sets like he has thus far in the event. If he’s struggling, then this is another five set match. Khachanov comes in serving much better than Ruud as far as unreturneds, but Ruud is looking (in a sea of heir apparents) like the heir apparent on tour. His conditioning is tremendous. His contact is as good as the tour has right now and his forehand is hitting clean winners. He doesn’t take a point off on defense and he doesn’t need to elevate to some peak level to notch wins. I think he’s ready to make a second finals appearance and be the stopgap until Alcaraz realizes he’s in better shape than everyone. Ruud in 4-5.
Sinner vs Tiafoe :
Currently Sinner is up 3-6, 7-6, 7-6, 2-1 in the 4th against Carlos Alcaraz. Alcaraz was my pick to win this, but it looks like he has lost the plot a little and will lose. Him and Sinner is an unreal high quality hitting affair, but Alcaraz missed some key shots here and his serve really let him down when he was up a break in the 2nd, and twice in the third. It’s strange to feel like you won a match but lost 3-1, but this will be the vibe in Alcaraz’s mind until the next big event. I’m not sure how he recovers from this one, as it’s the first time I’ve seen Carlos visibly frustrated on the court.
The good news is that problems are clear. He needs to change his service motion a bit so he can hit his spots in a more varied manner on hardcourt. He doesn’t go wide often enough in the duece court, and he tends to go bigger when it’s a tense moment which makes him unable to land the ball in the service box. Anyone who saw the match can acknowledge that Alcaraz has improved, but Sinner was better in the big moments. Jannik looked like he’d fatigue, but it never came. As the 4th set stretched on, Alcaraz’s backhand lost range a bit and sailed some high and wide. Sinner started to serve a bit better, and Alcaraz forced the issue on some shots where Sinner wasn’t really challenging him offensively. I felt like Alcaraz was a bit too willing to go inside in from the middle section of the ad side and Sinner opens the court well from there. It was an effective shot at times, but it put Alcaraz on defense quite often so tactically it wasn’t ideal. It’s natural to think you need to throw first against Jannik, but it felt like Alcaraz was enjoying the flow of the match and Sinner was trying to win it.
Tiafoe will have enjoyed watching these two work deep into the night, but it’s a scary matchup for the surging American. He scored a tremendous win against Rublev today, and his serve seems like it’s going to carry him in key moments for the foreseeable future. His play in tiebreakers was very clutch, and overall he was just the more steady player today. Rublev served decent, especially on break points, but his second serve is still a big liability. Tiafoe chose some clutch moments to rush in, and landed a few return winners in the tiebreakers that really gave him the crowd. Rublev looked a bit sadpants after the game, and I hope that his best bro Khachanov will pat him on the chest and cheer him up. It’s really frustrating to lose in a big moment, especially when you feel like you didn’t perform your best in the big moments. It’s tough also when the crowd is so heavily against you. Part of being a professional is competing in these environments, but you can really feel the vitriol of the crowd when they’re cheering for your faults and it doesn’t feel great.
Tiafoe and Sinner is a match I’d be very surprised if Tiafoe can win. He’s serving great but Sinner is a great returner. If they get into baseline rallies, Tiafoe just isn’t going to win a lot of them. He got the benefit of a lot of Rublev errors when he played dropshots today, and this will be gone against Sinner’s great footspeed. He was able to dominate with his forehand today, and this will be very difficult because Sinner trades forehand to forehand as well as anyone on tour. Tiafoe’s backhand was stable today, but Rublev was playing a bit safe once he got down in the scoreline and that won’t be the case with Sinner. All things told, Tiafoe is peaking but his peak is a slight tier below what Alcaraz and Sinner showed tonight. Sinner in 4.
PLOT TWIST :
Unreal. Absolutely unreal. I feel moved. That was one of the most incredible matches I have ever seen. I left the original writeup in just for contrast on how much that comeback changes the shape of this tournament. Alcaraz won this one with everything. He hit dropshots that were near perfect. Sinner got them. He hit the ball 100+ mph on his forehand and just never stopped fighting. When Sinner’s serve started to falter in the fourth, Alcaraz’s returning improved. In the fifth, he started going for clean winners off forehand returns. He hit lobs at the perfect moment. He missed going huge on break points and didn’t stop shooting. Throughout it all, he used the crowd masterfully. It was the best match of his career, and Sinner is a huge part of that. People are lamenting the loss of the big 3 but picture these two playing for the next ten years. This was a moment that tennis will talk about for the next decade. An absolute roller coaster. As DC original Angrybirdstar put it, “this match should have been Alcaraz in straights, then it should have been Sinner in 4, so clearly it’ll be del Potro himself coming down and winning it in 5.” The legend will grow, the confidence will grow, and the “real deal” moniker is firmly placed on both Sinner and Alcaraz for my money. Sinner will know he was likely a point away from winning a major (pre-emptive but true), and given how vastly improved his physical fitness is he’ll definitely be ready for a huge push in Australia.
To get to business though, Alcaraz is likely to beat Tiafoe. It’ll be a lot tougher returning against Tiafoe, but his overall level is not high enough from the baseline to beat Alcaraz. It seems like Carlos thrives on pace and his footspeed actually forced Sinner into some errors on shots where he had half the court open. Sinner’s backhand is a good shout more stable than Tiafoe’s, and he hits harder off both wings. Since Tiafoe is a bit quicker than Sinner, Alcaraz may want to avoid the dropshots, but Alcaraz’s play is pretty adept on all parts of the court. 5 hours and 15 minutes on court is exhausting, but Alcaraz was bouncing around at the end of this match and never took a point off. Carlos may want to go a bit lighter on first serve delivery here. Players are looking to get a return in play on the first, and to impose themselves offensively on a second. Tiafoe is a dangerous returner and Alcaraz struggle to hold behind his second against Sinner. That’s probably the only thing I’d change though. Tiafoe can serve well enough to get to the business end of things so he should win a set, but Alcaraz seemed to figure out hardcourt in a new way in this past round and it should carry over. Alcaraz in 4.
Swiatek vs Sabalenka :
A lot can change in a match. Swiatek came into the Pegula clash a bit error prone. She’d dropped a set against Niemeier and her timing wasn’t looking great. Despite giving up a whopping 6 breaks in this match, it now is. Pegula may feel like she had a bad day, but Swiatek ran her around today. The breaks came because Swiatek missed while supplying all the offense, but it’s a real good sign that she was able to create off both wings today while not really serving great. It’s just in time also since she’s playing Sabalenka who will really take her time away. Sabalenka and Pliskova felt like it would be a close match, but Karolina never got going in this one. She was error-prone from start to finish, and some unreal holds got her to a tiebreaker but she always seemed like she’d lose this one. Sabalenka has manufactured this level out of nowhere, and her groundstrokes seem pretty consistent this week.
There are a lot of reasons here for Swiatek to feel comfortable in this matchup. She’s won the last six sets against Sabalenka, and they were all by at least one break. Her hardcourt prowess is still in question, but she really let out some emotion after the last win and hitting through Pegula is great training. The difference in offensive talent here will give Sabalenka a better chance to hold if she does get breaks. Pegula put extra ball after extra ball back, but her first serve was almost completely absent, and she just spun in a ton of second serves. It was a valiant effort to get to neutral in rallies after letting Iga throw the first punch, but it’s something that meant she never really was in control of the outcome. Swiatek’s sharp angles are going to give Sabalenka trouble, and her ability to deflect power and change direction will let her finish off rallies against Aryna in fewer shots than it took against Pegula. Problems for Swiatek are the power of Sabalenka. Pegula got pushed off the baseline so it was hard for her to hit winners. Sabalenka’s serve and forehand are strong enough that she should have ample chances to attack, and Swiatek’s first serve took some vacations so Sabalenka’s aggressive returning can get her there.
A lot of Sabaleka’s dominance in rallies seemed to be Pliskova’s relative discomfort with the situation. She couldn’t find her first serve, and being down 6-1 after the first and serving second in the second set made for a very subdued performance. I think Swiatek might be ready to win her first hardcourt major, but judging from the last match it will take a while. Swiatek in 3.
Jabeur vs Garcia :
This feels like a finals. In Ons Jabeur’s last match she played one of the more consistent players on tour right now and one of the biggest hitters. Ajla Tomljanovic barely missed a shot during baseline rallies, and her only errors came on her own serve. Jabeur was able to maintain the pace though and even if it took 6-7 shots, she still hit her powerful winners to end things. Ons didn’t serve as well here as she did against Kudermetova, but she was able to outlast Tomljanovic in a very hard-hitting affair. After winning this match I thought Jabeur might have been the favorite to win this tournament, but Caroline Garcia’s dismissal of Cori Gauff was as comprehensive as I have seen.
Garcia is hitting her forehand so clean, and with full commitment to the shot. Her crosscourt ball is just disappearing, and despite Gauff’s speed and excellent squash gets she was beaten in the forehand exchanges from start to finish. Garcia’s great baseline play is plan B, as her serve is firing 10+ aces a match. I realize I’d have to list 100 plans here, as Garcia is just plain doing everything well at this event. She’s returning from inside the baseline almost 100% of the time, and is hitting clean winners when the ball drops short. When she’s able to direct returns down the center of the court, she’s rushing the net and earning a lot of errors. Her half-volleys have been incredible, and he doubles play has really given her a sense of comfort at net that’s paying off. Basically, she’s shown the best form of anyone leading into the event, and is now in the best form of anyone at the event.
Gauff is a hard hitter, but Jabeur is another tier of offense. She trades extremely well on her forehand, and her racquet skill is top tier. It means that this will likely be the first match where Garcia will have to play some difficult defense, something she hasn’t really had to do so far this event. When Gauff finally caught up to Garcia’s power, she was able to win some rallies but Garcia seemed fine dealing with the pace. It’ll be interesting to see how she fares with this for a full match, but Garcia is probably the slight pick to win here. Garcia in 2.