ATP Barcelona Semifinals Preview

BARCASF

Saturday’s Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell semifinal marks the 5th meeting between Kei Nishikori and Benoit Paire. The Frenchman has won their last two meetings, rallying from deficits in both matches. Paire famously beat Nishikori in the opening round of last year’s U.S. Open and followed it up with a three set win in the Tokyo semifinals.

(2) Kei Nishikori vs (6) Benoit Paire
The second seed survived a tough opening set from 11th seeded Alexandr Dolgpolov before delivering a bagel in the second to coast into the semifinals 7-5, 6-0. Nishikori was steady throughout the match, but especially tough in the opening set. He was able to fight off four break points, including one that would have handed Dog the opening set. Nishikori would hold to 5-5 and the secure the lone break of the set in the next game. He rolled in set two as Dolgopolov trailed off, winning just eight of 23 service points.

Paire played a perfectly Paire match against Malek Jaziri in the quarterfinals. He was putrid with his second serve in the opening set as he won just one of nine points. Jaziri was able to break him twice as he took the first set 6-3. The 6th seed would be down a quick break to open the second set, but fought back immediately with a break. He would win an elongated 12th game that stretched 15 points to break Jaziri and square the match with a 7-5 set win. From there, Paire rolled in the third at 6-1 with his first serve perfect in winning 14 of 14 points. His second was very problematic however as he managed to win just 12 of 38 points.

Nishikori will head into this showdown understandably concerned with how last year’s meetings with the Frenchman went. Nishikori looked in control in both New York and Tokyo, only to crater late in both. Paire flashed some big serving in both meetings in 2015, combining for 32 aces in the two matches. At the U.S. Open, he was especially effective in keeping his second serve from being a deciding factor in the match. Paire would land 64 percent of his first serves, but regress to just 50 percent in Tokyo. That enabled Nishikori to punish him early for a 6-1 1st set win, but Paire improved and scored the next two sets in his favor 6-4, 6-1.

Their two matches last year wound up incredibly even when all was said and done. Nishikori actually won four more points than Paire in their five set marathon at the U.S. Open, 160 to 156. In Tokyo, Nishikori again edged the point total at 86-84. The key factor in both seemed to be that Nishikori could not sustain the aggressive play that pushed him out to early leads. That allowed Paire to find a way as the Frenchman got his rhythm on serve and began to punish Nishikori off the ground.

Figure to see plenty of baseline bashing in this one as it is the preferred method of operation for both players. Paire simply has to be better with his second serve against the defending champ if he wants to win. He did a good job taking care of it through his first two matches, but was dreadful against Jaziri. Paire doesn’t usually put a ton of first serves in play, often fluttering around 50 percent, so that will be a big point to watch.

For Nishikori, this figures to be a mental battle with last year’s losses likely to weigh on him at some point regardless of the score. The plus for the second seed is that Barcelona has become his personal playground recently with two titles and 13 straight wins on these courts. Nishikori has been in a good vein of form this week and has remained mentally tough throughout. This will serve as great prep should he advance to perhaps face Rafael Nadal in the final.

The Pig can see Paire making this one competitive again and perhaps even making it three straight against Nishikori, but as long as the demons of 2015 can be squashed by the second seed with consistent aggressive play, he should put himself into position to try for the three-peat on Sunday.

Prediction
Nishikori wins in three sets

It’s been mostly one way traffic when Rafael Nadal and Philipp Kohlschreiber have met during their careers. The top seed in Barcelona is 11-1 against Kohlschreiber and will be seeking a trip back to the Barcelona Open final for the first time since 2013.

(1) Rafael Nadal vs (10) Philipp Kohlschreiber
Nadal was exquisite for the most part in the opening set as he put Fabio Fognini off balance early. The Spaniard broke Fognini twice as he rolled to a 4-0 lead and threatened to shove a bagel down Fognini’s throat. Fab would fight back with a break of his own to avoid that, but it was Nadal who would roll to a 6-2 win in the opener. The top seed took 17 of 31 service points from the Italian. The second set was perfectly Fognini. Rafa would break Fognini to go up 2-0, but give it right back as the Italian reeled off four straight games to take a 4-2 lead.

Comfortable holds would give Fognini a chance to serve for the second set at 5-4, but predictably he blew it. Almost as predictable, Fognini soon found himself down three match points trailing 6-5. Death, taxes, Fognini again. Fab pulled out some electric winners to fight those off and push the set to a tiebreak. The predictability train continued as Fognini then got blown out in the breaker 7-1 as Nadal moved into the final. Rafa was the better of the two on serve as their clashes are often decided. He was broken three times on three chances, but pressure Fognini all match with 16 break chances. The top seed would convert five.

Kohlschreiber had no trouble with 16th seeded Andrey Kuznetsov in the quarterfinals. It was the third time that the two had met in their careers with all three coming in Barcelona. The German ran away with this one 6-3, 6-1. Kohlschreiber saved four of four break points, while pounding a lackluster serve from Kuznetsov. The 10th seed would win 17 of 24 points off Kuznersov’s second and break him four times on eight opportunities. Kohlschreiber is now 9-4 in Barcelona since 2013.

Nadal has dominated the German in their careers with a 11-1 record. Kohlschreiber’s lone win came in 2012 on the grass courts in Halle, Germany where he excels almost every year. Nadal has won all four clashes on clay without dropping a set. Their last clay court meeting was in Monte Carlo in 2013 where Nadal won 6-2, 6-4. They have not met since 2013, when Rafa beat Kohlschreiber 6-4, 7-6 (3) in Beijing near the end of the season.

The German’s success in Barcelona is a bit surprising as this marks the four straight season he has made the quarterfinals or better. This will be his second semifinal appearance with the other coming in 2013 against Nicolas Almagro. Nadal is back in the semis for the first time since 2013 when he last won the title in Barcelona. He suffered surprising defeats to Almagro in 2014 in the quarters and last year to Fognini in the third round.

There’s nothing in the history between these two that suggests anything other than a Nadal win on this surface. Rafa has continued his mostly strong play this week with solid ground strokes and a mostly solid serve. Kohlschreiber will need an A+ serving game, but isn’t likely to find that against the quality of return that Rafa still possesses. Without the ability to get cheap points on-serve, the German will be left to exchange punishing rallies with the top seed that do not generally bode well for him winning.

Prediction
Nadal wins in straight sets

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