Jan 25, 2023

2023 Australian Open Quarterfinals ATP & WTA Day 2

Djokovic vs Rublev :

It is a peaceful morning in Melbourne. Sun glints gently off the waters of Cardinia Reservoir. A stork begins its daily stretch, standing on one leg. Atop its head perches Novak Djokovic, also on one leg. “Two legs is for amateurs,” whispers Novak to a passing bee. It buzzes happily in agreement. Why have health when you can just hit winners? The questions surrounding Djokovic’s hamstring injury have given birth to more questions after his near-perfect performance against De Minaur. How can a guy who looks in awful pain and ready to forfeit a match against Couacaud turn around and play one of the best matches of his life in terms of aggression. It’s a mystery.

On one hand, De Minaur got the beating he always gets in these situations. Since he got on tour, there has been a lot of hype surrounding his motor and insistence on taking the ball early. In the first few years, I was calling him Djokovic-lite and was wondering when he’d pack on some weight and start really hitting the ball hard. This has happened gradually, but in that early stretch there was a match I still remember. De Minaur played Tomas Berdych (who was in the “you can beat me if you play top tier tennis” stage of his career”. It was a two set beatdown where Berdych looked like the best player I’d ever seen, despite ADM’s mettle. Since then, De Minaur’s level has ebbed and flowed, but his results look pretty much the same. He’s able to beat all the lower-ranked players, and lands as a huge price favorite in all early rounds of majors. Against higher ranked players and guys with big power, he just cannot get anything done. This was the case against Djokovic. Novak played incredibly, but Alex hung in. It just seems like what De Minaur does feeds into the plan for these big hitters. He hits a very flat ball and he tries to stay on the baseline. I’d compare the issue a bit to what Swiatek experienced against Rybakina. You think you’re pushing the pace by hanging on the baseline against a big hitter, but you’re just giving them the same look and pace over and over. A guy like Novak in a rhythm is really hard to stop. Half-volleying forehands looks really cool and aggressive but it’s unlikely those balls are going to be hit for winners. ADM’s serve improved, but Djokovic looked perfect.

So what happened with the injury? There are a lot of options. None of them are great. He might be in such good shape physically that he’s able to favor something that has weakness. It seems odd that a hamstring would fit in this category since tennis has a lot of pivoting and stretching and lunging, but he’s been fairly dominant in the tennis side of things so this may have been exposed less. Against Enzo, who’s a fairly new commodity, Djokovic would have less idea where the ball was going, which would mean more “wait and see” tennis which can lead to more extreme/rapid physical exertion. This would explain why he looked in forfeit mode against Enzo, and why he looked okay against Dimitrov and fine against De Minaur. He knows basically where the ball’s going against a familiar opponent, so he shifts there fluidly rather than scrambling (which is when injuries tend to flare up). That’s one option.

Another is that he is a bit of a child. When a child gets injured in front of others, they cry, they wail, there are general histrionics. It becomes part of a story about them, and the “woe is me” appeal amplifies ideas about how bad things are, and it’s off to the races. This wouldn’t be the first time that Djokovic’s matches have had him look completely physically unable to continue, followed by him rolling. The US Open match against Fritz where he experienced an abdominal tear comes to mind. He was wincing on every single swing and could barely make contact, then after the “whole crowd must go home” delay (curfew in place at the time) he played fine. Maybe his training staff is really next level, but there’s some disconnect here between his reaction to the issue (appears severe) and his performance after it occurs. Professional sports has its fair share of exaggerated injuries where players appear to be in serious pain and then end up competing normally a minute later. It’s a little tedious as a fan, but people react differently to pain, so they may just not be good at dealing with it. For a guy like Novak who’s doing yoga and eating healthy and concentrating on tennis and fitness for 10-20 years now, the odds are that he’s not experiencing sharp pains very often, so when they come there may be a general confusion. This is the same guy who collapses his body into a heap when he hits a double fault, so he’s clearly pretty reactive physically despite his stoic demeanor on the court.

You can also make the case that Djokovic is actually in severe pain, and he’s such a competitor that once he gets used to the pain but knows there’s a cap on it he’s able to play. We have Nadal playing through what is reported to be serious metatarsal pain, but we need a deeper dive into Djokovic being able to play with an undisclosed hamstring issue? It seems like an attack on Djokovic to not take his reports/reactions at face value, but part of the issue that makes tennis injuries so suspicious is that it’s an individual sport. Player injuries are kept as secret/vague as possible to avoid strategic disadvantages. Press conferences are largely stock answers that sound nice but contain no info. “What are the strategies for the next round” is always met with “I’m just gonna focus on playing my tennis”. This is fine, but it leads to a sort of reverse boy-who-cried-wolf situation. When there is something to talk about, fans are going to discuss it beyond the press responses given, simply because we’ve watched those responses be carefully lacking on information for a long time. Djokovic has probably given us the scoop, but we all want to know what the situation is behind closed doors, what his team thinks about his chances, what strategies he’s implementing to deal with the pain/limitations, and what medical techniques/wrapping techniques are being used. Nobody wants Djokovic to not be able to compete at his best, but as fans there is some desire to mitigate our expectations if he’s playing on one leg.

Why are the conspiracy theorists questioning how real the injury is? Well, a handful of reasons. Incurring a visible injury during the Australian Open is the perfect way to diminish expectations and create a very difficult situation for your opponents to compete in. It’s really hard to choose the right strategy against an injured opponent, and we’ve seen countless hours of peering across the net wondering if someone is going to forfeit, only to have the favored healthy player end up losing. Djokovic has had a number of physical issues within matches that ended up being a non-factor by the end also, so people who’ve wanted more info once have had their initial questions become larger over time. The Fritz match stands out, but there have been other twinges and injuries that seemed to be an issue during the L section of matches and weren’t during the W ones. A public but undefined injury also lends itself to skipping tour obligations (players are supposed to play a minimum amount of 250s, 500s, and 1000 level tournaments) so that the warmup for Roland Garros includes a month of prep and a minimal amount of matchplay. The offseason is when most players do their best regrouping and improving each year, so having that pre-major is ideal. Tennis is also a sport where medical timeouts have been used strategically for a long time, and there have been ebbs and flows of whether it is frowned upon to actually call players out on it. How often does Monfils grab at his ankle after he loses a rally, or doubles over dramatically only to sprint during the next rally and crush a forehand. There is gamesmanship in tennis, and there are fans, so there will always be some inflammatory questions and opinions in situations like these.

Personally, I don’t know what’s going on with Novak, and I want him to be healthy and able to play because it is a better sport with him in it. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have questions when he goes from looking like an assured forfeit to nearly zipping an in-form Alex De Minaur. It’s the same rumor mill as Nadal experienced after he indicated retirement was looming because of a foot injury, and then won two grand slams (the most labor intensive ones). It’s just unbelievable, and I guess that’s our final answer. These players are legendary, so the stuff we witness just isn’t always going to make sense.

Djokovic’s level is beyond what anyone in the tournament has displayed. Tsitsipas has had a similar performance, but only on his forehand wing. Rublev has had middling success against Djokovic, but its really looking like an uphill battle to beat him. Rublev is also fairly lucky to be in this stage after Holger “Come and get your waffles” Rune served for the match at 5-2 in the fifth and was up 7-4 in the final set tiebreak. Rublev managed to get it to 9-7 before Rune held him there twice, including a ridiculous down the line backhand pass off of a Rublev overhead at match point. After all the drama and battling, Rublev got a letcord to dribble over to end the match. Props to Rune, he took it extremely well. It’s a potentially crushing loss, but he has a lot to look forward to this year. Rublev’s forehand inside out is the big weapon for the Novak clash. Essay about injury speculations aside, Djokovic’s ability to stretch on his backhand wing has looked like one area that does seem diminished. It’s funny though, he hasn’t really had to get out there thus far. He’s been serving extremely well and looking for rope forehands as soon as he gets in a rally. It really seems like the injury led him to start going bigger, and the result is he’s reached a new level. It looks a bit like the Austalian Open finals where Djokovic just blitzed Medvedev.

Rublev hitting with more topspin will make him a bit more of a threat than De Minaur, and anyone with power is going to fare better against Djokovic simply because you can hit the ball faster than people can run. How many times he’s able to do that is the big question. Rublev’s serving has improved but Rune was feasting on his second serve, and Djokovic will also. This feels so different than a round ago, but Djokovic is back to looking like a runaway in this event. Djokovic in 3-4.

Paul vs Shelton :

I almost cringed when I realized how many US players were left in the 4th round of a major, but these guys really deserve their spot in the quarterfinals. Popyrin gave Shelton a big gift in beating Fritz. It opened up the draw, but Shelton has done the work every round. Against Wolf, there was a bit of regression. One of Shelton’s main skills to work on was his returning on the backhand wing. He seems to struggle a bit to decide between blocking it and slicing it back, and there are a handful of chips in there that fell very short. Against Popyrin and Jarry, the pace was such that he didn’t have a choice. He blocked, and he returned excellent. Wolf was just sending a sliding ball in with a bit of kick, and Shelton really struggled to find depth on his returns. Wolf’s forehand inside out was a big weapon also, and since he knows Shelton’s game fairly well he was able to follow these down the middle. Most lefties have a good ability to shape the ball cross-court off that wing, but Shelton mostly goes middle/line when he’s pulled wide and goes cross when he’s already in that corner, so it was a good tactic by Wolf. This was a match where basically either could have won, because it was really difficult to break serve for much of the match. Wolf seemed like a mid-level guy to me, but he’s got wins against RBA, Mannarino, Ymer, Bublik, Cressy, Molcan, and even jolly ‘ol St. Sock in the past six months so he could continue to improve.

While Shelton was tasked with remaining patient on serve, Tommy Paul had a rally exciting match on his hands. RBA was one of the sharpest coming into this event, and he somehow didn’t fatigue during the first week run. I think Tommy is really the sharpest player in this match, and Shelton’s wins have been against more unproven commodities. Popyrin is an error machine when he regresses. Wolf is a great player but he’s in that second tier. Paul has been grinding on tour and he’s really been involved in some huge matches and some huge wins. When it’s his to win, he tends to get it, so I expect him to come through here. At this stage in a tournament, there’s just very little way to know who will triumph though. Players aren’t generally at their peak, so I see the late rounds as more of a chance to witness peak vs peak than a spot where I can accurately say who’s better. Tournaments are where we find out who’s better.

Tommy is really the right guy to be in the semifinals, and it’ll take a huge return performance from Shelton to get through. I love his game, and his attitude on court, but he feels like a guy who’ll be making major semifinals in 3-4 years, not right now. Paul will have seen how effective Wolf’s serving approach was, and he has one of the biggest kick serves on tour currently. Paul in 3-4.

Sabalenka vs Vekic :

This is going to be a ridiculously good match. Sabalenka comes in as the huge -400 favorite, after a straight sets win against Bencic. It was a start to finish beatdown from Sabalenka, who showed a real hole in Bencic’s forehand/footwork. The inside out backhand worked almost every time Sabalenka hit it, and it seems like Belinda’s forehand production doesn’t allow her to do much with this ball except hit it down the middle. Something to note for future opponents. Bencic made the obligatory push at snagging the second, but she just was a bit behind the 8-ball the entire time since Sabalenka had a lead. With a lead, she just tends to open up and the skill level she possesses is absurd. Point blank, if Sabalenka improves her consistency, she could go on a Serena-like run at the majors. Her game is just too big, and there’s no technical issues in her swings, it’s really just a matter of not getting too impatient/hyped.

Sabalenka is the biggest hitter, but Vekic’s rallies make it look like she is. I haven’t seen anyone else hitting more clean winners this week, and she did extremely well to regroup after losing the second set to Linda Fruhvirtova. Going forward, if you see a Czech flag next to a WTA athlete, assume they have a chance. Just a really promising crop of players coming out of their programs currently, and a great set of pro’s for them to look up to in Pliskova/Krejcikova/etc. It’d be nice to see Krystina work with Bejlek a bit also, since she really had a great set of 1-2 combos on tour. If you add reliable hold patterns to Bejlek’s defense, it’ll be really scary. For now Vekic is the winner though, and it’s tricky to announce her demise since she’s won the last two meetings with Sabalenka in three sets. One of these was just this October in San Diego, so she won’t hate her chances here. I’m not sure if her defense will hold for this match, but her offense is heavy enough to win the points where she has time. Big difference for me is Sabalenka’s serving. She’s holding at an absurd rate (insert number), and Vekic has given up a few breaks to Fruhvirtova who has a similar approach tactically as Sabalenka but significantly less power.

This is the type of match where it’s easy to point out why late rounds are not good to bet on. -400 is an outrageous price to pay against any top WTA player, and despite Sabalenka’s good form we know that there is a stylistic issue that allowed a slightly rustier Vekic (she was just getting back to it on 2022) to defeat Sabalenka. I think Vekic will hang tough here, and Sabalenka will be a little bit better defensively as the match drags on. Sabaleka in 2-3.

Linette vs Pliskova :

I completely missed this match’s start time. The past few rounds have been an hour and a half later so this is kinda surprising. Big goof for me, but I might just be getting a bit fatigued from lack of sleep. I expected a close match here. Linette is on a tear and the +135 price that she opened at (moved up to +150 and then back down before close) is an indication that she has a good shot. Beating Kontaveit and Alexandrova is really solid, and they have similar tier offenses to Pliskova. I thought it would be close anyway though because Pliskova is playing great. Her forehand looks exceptional, and she always serves well to start the year. She made Zhang look harmless in the last round, and Zhang can be one of the hardest hitters on tour. Currently it’s 4-2 Linette but there’ve been a handful of breaks. Expecting a marathon in this one. Pliskova in 3.