Jan 26, 2023

2023 Australian Open ATP & WTA Semifinals

Khachanov vs Tsitsipas :

For tomorrow’s semifinals I want to provide a quick refresher on each player, so I’ve reached out to each camp with a brief (BRIEF MEANS SHORT STEFANOS) questionnaire to give us the scoop on them :

Player Name : Karen Khachanov

Height : 6’6”

Weight : 190lbs

Street name : lil baby thickness

Favorite shot : Backhand

Biggest title : 2020 Olympics Silver Medalist

Player Name : Stefanos Tsitsipas, but you could call me by many names. What’s a name anyway right? Write that down actually. Thank me later … (rant continues)

Height : 6’4” but you could see me as taller sometimes. You know the camera can be deceiving, a lot of people don’t understand that. I love you Melbourne, you know we are doing this together in a way, you are loving me, and i am receiving that love … (rant continues)

Favorite shot : Forehand cross

Biggest title : Some say I’m a philosopher. That’s a pretty big title if you think about it. It’s a little bit technical so not many people will understand but for those of us that do we will know what that means. What is meaning though anyway? I like to … (rant continues)

This semifinals is pretty interesting. I don’t ask much of Khachanov, but I need to see him isolate Tsitsipas’s backhand here. Khachanov is playing the best tennis of his life. He is extremely consistent on both wings and he seems to be serving well enough and mixing up his shots on his backhand well enough to have offensive presence. He was clinical in dispatching every opponent thus far, including an anti-climactic but well earned win against Sebastian Korda. Korda was unfortunately forced to bow out with a wrist issue, and part of that is likely due to the tremendous hitting he’d done during the week. Korda tried to continue, but Khachanov hits a very heavy ball and it seemed like it was guaranteed to get worse if he completed the match.

If Khachanov is well rested and playing great, he should like his chances here, but this is a matchup that’s already been somewhat solved by Stefanos in the past so he needs to change things up. If anyone has ever played a tough lefty, you’ll know that at some point in losing to them you get so fed up that you decide to just hit 100% of balls to their backhand. It’s like fine you’re gonna beat me but at least let you have to do it the hard way. This situation is similar. Khachanov has never beaten Tsitsipas on hardcourt. The last few matches he didn’t even win a set. That is a worse version of Tsitsipas also. The United Cup atmosphere has given way to a very motivated and focused Tsitsipas. He still chatters at his box at times but he is very willing to listen as well. A few times when I thought he was about to snap at his box, I saw him think it over, and nod. This is a sign of maturity, and he’s still a bit Tsitsipas at times, but you gotta look at the path rather than the narration. I think anyone who studies a bit of philosophy will eventually pick up some useful concepts. It’s kinda like water, even if you can’t swim, you still get wet.

Basically a more fit and mature version of a guy who’s had success at this tournament, who owns the H2H in a dominant fashion, has a serve/forehand combo that are firing is Khachanov’s task. I think his best chance is to go full junior-tennis mode and just batter away at the backhand. With the lead, Tsitsipas swings freely on his backhand. Under pressure, it’s still dependable, but the contact and depth starts to suffer. There’s still a fair bit of topspin on it, but the added height isn’t significant on these courts and Khachanov is at his best offensively when the balls sitting a little high. Tsitsipas lost the wing completely against Sinner, and he struggled with clean contact for a set against Lehecka. While we’re talking about the tough road ahead, Lehecka played one of the highest level matches that anyone has at this event, and got straight setted. Jiri is going to have an absolute smasher of a season, and Tsitsipas’s forehand and serve left him 0/8 on break points.

Tsitsipas will know there is a liability there, and will be practicing today on that wing. He’s very familiar with Khachanov’s approach also, and his speed will let him run down most of the shots Khachanov offers. This is another reason to go one-dimensional in a perceivable way. If Tsitsipas knows the plan is to hit to his backhand, he may be defiant and go for too much. He may feel confident if he’s playing well behind the backhand, but that only lasts until the first miss. It doesn’t guarantee success but it gets him thinking, and we saw how effective Murray was at isolating Berrettini and Kokkinakis’ backhand corners. They both ended up seeing him hit clean winners inside in against them with his forehand, which is not the fastest delivery in tennis anymore. Khachanov also takes his backhand down the line well, and that’s one of the biggest shots to flip the outcomes in an ATP match (hello Goffin you rascal). I’ll get off my soapbox, but Tsitsipas’ backhand is not completely technically sound, and it is the wing that can break down.

Me thinking I’ve invented hitting to a bad backhand aside, Tsitsipas should win this match. He’s really in a good service rhythm and more importantly he’s able to serve big in key moments. He’s also the much faster player here, which can put a bit of pressure on Khachanov if he feels he has to do more to score. Doing more to score is good, but trying to do that while trying to avoid missing tends to lead to misses. Decent advice is if you’re going to do something anyway, might as well belive in yourself. Low percentage doesn’t mean you already missed, and these guys are tremendous. I guess in the end, Tsitsipas just seems like he’s going to win based on their current displayed levels, because all the Khachanov scenarios I can think of involve him doing something brand new for him. We’ll see. Tsitsipas did have one section of the Sinner match where he looked flat physically, so Khachanov being such a physical opponent could maybe play a factor t some point, but Tsitsipas has talked a lot about improving his fitness over the off-season, and he’s a guy who has shown in the past to finish strong in 5 setters where you might expect him to go away. Greek outlook aside, this is going to be really good. Khachanov is barely missing anything and he’s serving huge. Tsitsipas is ripping his forehand and hasn’t lost yet this year. It’s not the usual suspects, but this is gonna be good. Tsitsipas in 4-5. Probably deserves it too.

Djokovic vs Paul :

I need a hamstring injury asap. Djokovic has completely flipped the script from “I wonder if he’ll be okay for clay season” to “he’s going to win every major this year”. His leg looks fine, and his tennis looks the best it ever has. All my analysis during his matches about the underdog having any chance has included “he’ll need a dip in Novak’s level though” and that dip just hasn’t arrived. He looks fit, he’s moving fine (still a bit hesitant to lunge on the backhand wing but he’s adopted some sort of variation where he spins around back towards his forehand more often after making a get), and he’s crushing the ball. Against Rublev, he just didn’t allow the guy to reset. Every time Rublev was done blasting away and put one down the middle or short or with height, Djokovic stepped up and went for a winner, that landed on or near the line. In between thumping everyone’s favorite angry broccoli, Djokovic found time to get mad at the crowd, and at his box. This was a puzzling moment for most since everything was going well, but Djokovic works on all parts of his game, including boxrage.

I want to point out one of the more ridiculous lines you’ll see in tennis this year. Not in terms of accuracy but in terms of “pls don’t bet”. Books have opened Djokovic at -2500 for the next round against Tommy Paul. You will rarely see anything over -1000 in the semifinals of a grand slam, and the funny part is the number feels accurate. Djokovic has reached a level that we haven’t seen before, and his previous peak was already good enough to make him a lock against everyone but the absolute best challengers on tour. There’s no sense in risking the $ on a guy with a possible injury issue, but it’s a funny move all the same by the books. Tommy time though. Let’s talk Tommy. Sir Thomas Paul is through in 4 sets after a comprehensive of Ben Shelton. Shelton’s game is like a cross because Tsonga’s power and brilliance and Cam Norrie’s shot selection. Everything is there for him to compete at the top level of the tour, and I’d expect his season to go a bit like Draper’s best season thus far, but without the injury issues (Shelton seems to be able to compete hard on his large frame without issue). He was competitive in the scoreline against Paul, but he really was a shot worse during rallies. Tommy had all the answers on defense, constantly reopening angles with his backhand when he was in trouble, and he moved his forehand extremely well.

Whether Paul can do anything of impact against Djokovic is a tough question. I’d point to a handful of reasons why he’s the combined forces of De Minaur and Rublev here, but that doesn’t make him a threat to cross the finish line. He moves really well. Much better than Rublev so rally tolerance is something he’s more comfortable with. He also hits much bigger and with more shape than De Minaur, which means he isn’t feeding Novak with comfortable and consistent looks. It also means he’s a bit dangerous if he does earn setups, since he holds both swings really well and hits to small targets. Rublev was pretty much in ragemode yesterday once he knew he was going to lose. He had break points to get involved in the match, but he was just single-minded about his approach and it was pretty clear that he was trying to do too much with the ball. That is a killer against a good defensive player, as errors abound when you try to play outside your game. Paul is way more even-keeled than Rublev, and has experienced failure and success against top players in a way that Rublev sort of hasn’t. Tommy first started nabbing sets in big matches, but eventually got to see the ball go through the hoop with wins against Nadal, Alcaraz, Cilic, and Sinner over the past year. Rublev isn’t necessarily a gatekeeper, but his exits from majors have all been fairly one-sided so there has to be some mental block there.

Working against our chum Tommy is that it’s his first meeting with Novak. This can be good and bad, as he has no scar tissue from previous Ls, but it also means he’ll have somewhat of a feeling out period of what Djokovic’s ball plays like. It could be tough to settle in in a spot like this. If we’re still taking submissions for why Paul is better than Rublev or De Minaur here, point to the serve. Tommy’s serving is extremely solid and he has a huge kick serve for a second which he sometimes uses on his first serve. It’s one of the few tactics that’s very effective against anyone. Basically, Tommy Paul is the best player Djokovic has faced, so I think while the outcome is assured, this will be one of the best matches of the tournament in terms of skill. Hard to see anyone getting across the finish line against Djokovic right now though. It isn’t that he’s unbreakable in a game, but it’s that same level of Novak coming at you in every game of every set. It just feels too uphill for Paul at the current stage of his career. Djokovic in 3.

Rybakina vs Azarenka :

If I were friends with Rybakina and Azarenka, I could get any chips I wanted in the chip aisle. Plus, I’d have pals to share them with. “But blurry, we only care about championchips”, they’ll insist, oh how we’ll laugh and crunch and be best pals. For now though, this is the semifinal more likely to produce great tv. Rybakina has rolled over Ostapenko with 11 aces and 7/8 break points saved. It was more of the same great composure and hitting from Rybakina. She is leaning into her shots and not really giving much away in the swing as far as the direction she’s going, although as I’ve said earlier you might as well just camp out on the cross-court forehand. Anytime Ostapenko had a look at some momentum, she missed a shot. Her offense was effective when she had time, but you rarely have time against Rybakina and despite being a power player Elena is also fairly consistent (only 21 unforced errors in the match). For comparison, Azarenka played one of the most locked-in consistent matches of the tournament against Pegula and she was at 20 unforced errors.

Ostapenko was in big trouble against Rybakina, but she had a secret weapon up her sleeve. The challenge. Ostapenko is one of the only players on the tour still utilizing the challenge system. This is impressive for several reasons. One, because the challenge system does not exist anymore. Two, because the results of the automated system are not important to Jelena. After holding her hand up to challenge, and seeing where the ball landed on the monitor, she then turns to her box to show them how far the ball was actually out by. I know it’s just frustration at losing and excuses to preserve her ego, but it’s a little scary to me how a player of her level can not know where the ball landed so often during a match. Rybakina was somehow unapologetic that the computers had clearly taken her side, and Robotkina took the win. Is this the beginning of Terminator? Clearly yes, but at least this time we’ll get lovely tennis.

Azarenka stopped the Pegula hype train right in its tracks. Since returning to the tour post-pregnancy, this is the best match I’ve seen her play, and that’s considering she’s had 3 setters with Serena and Osaka at the US Open where they’re at their best. Pegula kept probing Azarenka’s defenses, and she hits a pretty flat but heavy ball so it should have worked, but there was no give from Azarenka. What resulted were mostly Pegula errors, or points where she was hitting hard but right to Aza. It’s hard to say when she should have shifted tactics, since Pegula at times in the first seemed like she’d get back in the match, and in the second seemed like she’d finally break and we’d see a third. She just kept hammering away though, and Azarenka had a good read on the pace and location so it really wasn’t effective. I think if your opponent has shown you they aren’t going to miss against flat pace, you need to give them some different looks. Pegula wasn’t necessarily in danger in this match in most rallies, she just was the one trying to win them all. It made Azarenka’s job easy, and I think Pegula’s stature hurt her a little here as Azarenka was able to get her kick serve working to Pegula’s forehand.

Rybakina is such a different production than Pegula, but there are some similarities in the approach. Big differences that can hurt Azarenka here are Rybakina’s serve, and her willingness to come to net. In a strictly baseline rally Azarenka seems like she will win a good chunk of the match. She’s very consistent and keeps the ball in difficult locations to produce off of. Rybakina can win the rallies, but it’ll take something special to do that. I would have had Pegula around +135 against Rybakina, so the +167 for Azarenka makes a bit of sense given her slightly smaller market size (which is funny considering her career, but makes since given their career trajectories leading into this event). I don’t know if outlasting Rybakina is a great plan, but she’s had the benefit in her last few matches of playing offensive approaches. Swiatek wanted to trade shots at the baseline but she never got her serve going and was outhit. Ostapenko wanted to impose her own offense but Rybakina was hitting too heavy and caused errors. Azarenka here will just be looking to frustrate Rybakina, and to keep her moving. It’s the right formula to beat her, but I don’t know if Rybakina’s percentages on serve and during the rally really indicate an incoming implosion. Probably the best chance of any player thus far to take a set, but this title looks like it’s Rybakina’s to lose. Rybakina in 3.

Sabalenka vs Linette :

Maybe 6-7 years ago I was watching a low level WTA event and saw Sabalenka. She was hitting the ball as hard as she could and as low as she could, and it was glorious. Her service motion was raw and already the most powerful WTA serve I’d ever seen. None of the shots landed in the court, and the serves were all over the place and in the net, but I thought “wow, that’s my kind of tennis”. In truth, I don’t think of tennis as a solved game in its current form, though it’s getting close with the way Novak is playing. I think most racquetsports eventually reach a conclusion that nonstop offense is probably the GTO approach, simply because of the effect it has on your game over time and your opponents is a huge bonus. You may hit yourself out of some matches, but you have the match on your racquet. Opponents tend to deviate into defensive playing against someone constantly going for it, and this gives you more time and control which is what you want to get through a big tournament. The offense you’re going for may not be sustainable initially, but if you stay the the course the accumulated repetitions and the intent to reach that level will gradually make you consistent. It’s training to be great vs playing to stay on tour, so this option isn’t really available except to the “next gen/phenom crowd”. How long it takes to actually be able to implement these lofty goals is a really tough question, and there are plenty of Shapovalov/Klizan/Sonego types on tour who have shot themselves out of matches trying to play.

Sabalenka has enjoyed success despite her inconsistency, and now years later everything is starting to click. She’s spreading her backhand beautifully, and her frequent inside out offerings are really slick because the cross-court one is the shot she can beat players cleanly with. Keeping them honest just makes it even more effective when she finally pulls the trigger. It also gets her a lot of forehands since the default on the inside-out backhand seems to be trying to lift the ball cross-court. Overall, Sabalenka is still a step slow, and still throws in a few poor service games, but there is a general approach and destination in mind, and her return stats are good enough that going down a break isn’t the end of a set. This is a spot that she’s very dangerous in. None of the usual suspects left, and two matches to win a Grand Slam. It’d be nice to add that singles title to her two doubles titles (2019 USO 2021 AO with Mertens). Magda Linette is always a tough out, but Sabalenka has a huge advantage in power here.

Linette is on a fairy tale run here, with her best result at a Grand Slam coming at age 30. She’s gotten past nothing but big name offensive talent thus far : Kontaveit, Alexandrova, Garcia, Pliskova. Now after all that, most people still have her getting rolled over by Sabalenka. It’s hard to argue against given their history (Sabalenka allowed only 7 games in their two meetings) and Sabalenka’s form, but it will be one of those spots where every Sabalenka error raises more doubt and every Linette service game inspires more hope. So far it has seemed like Linette has had the benefit of either errors or a mobility advantage though. Sabalenka in the past has had such a big advantage in the rallies that her slightly slower mobility wasn’t an issue, and since Linette is more the type to create angles than to hit clean past you, I think we will see Sabalenka able to do enough off the balls she has to sprint to to avoid having to change direction. Changing direction and reacting to multiple shots is where Sabalenka can get in trouble, but one-off sprints see her moving extremely well and she hits big enough to buy herself time to get to the next ball. At least, I think she does. At this stage it’s really hard to doubt Linette with the list of in-form players she’s caused to unravel. Sabalenka in a tense 2 sets.