2017 Qatar ExxonMobil Open SF Preview: Novak Djokovic vs Fernando Verdasco

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(2) Novak Djokovic vs Fernando Verdasco

Head-2-Head: 8-4 in favor of Djokovic
Last Meeting: Djokovic def. Verdasco 6-2, 6-2 in Doha (2016)

Quarterfinal Recap

Djokovic had a bit of a wobble in the quarterfinals against Radek Stepanek. After breaking out to a 3-0 lead on the Czech, Djokovic was broken to bring the opening set back on serve at 4-3. As he often does though, the Serb broke back again to help clean out the set at 6-3. The second was much more routine as Djokovic broke Stepanek to open and close the set in the 6-2, 6-3 win. Djokovic destroyed Stepanek’s weak second serve, taking 22 of 28 points overall. This week’s second seed in Doha was solid enough on serve as he took 74 percent of the points off his first serve and 57 percent off his second serve. For the tournament, he’s now been broken three times in three matches on nine opportunities.

Verdasco continued his assault this week with a straight forward 6-2, 7-5 win over Ivo Karlovic. The sixth seed was well off on his major weapon on Thursday as he allowed 12 break points off his usually potent serve. Verdasco capitalized for three breaks and took care of business on his own serve. The lefty allowed just a single break chance and saved it, a stark contrast from the 14 break points he had to fend off in the previous round versus fourth seed, David Goffin. Verdasco was only forced to put ten second serves into play in the quarterfinals, something he’d like to reproduce against Djokovic. He would win just over 70 percent of his first serve and exactly 70 percent of his second serve.

Thermometer Time

Through three matches, Djokovic has yet to drop a set in Doha. He’s now won 16 straight sets at this tournament dating back through last year’s championship run. He did things the hard way against Jan-Lennard Struff in his opener as he looked rusty and trailed 4-0, before rallying to take the opening set in a tiebreak. Since then, he’s looked a bit more like the Djokovic we’re accustomed to seeing. Solid defense. Great return of serve. And his offensive game and serve has found its rhythm more as the week has progressed with his serve becoming less troublesome than it was in that opener. Temperature rising.

For Verdasco, it’s been a good week of results and he’s shown he’s willing to fight hard at age 33. The Spaniard also started slow against Vasek Pospisil in his opener in Doha, trailing by a break early in the opening set. He would rally however to take the first and then bagel the Canadian in the second. The match against Goffin showcased that “fight” as previously mentioned with Verdasco saving 12 of 14 break chances in the 6-1, 7-6 (8) win. He looked more on cruise control in the quarters against a struggling Ivo Karlovic and that should help as he prepares for a grueling test versus Djokovic. Temperature slightly elevated.

Cracking Skulls

Having played on 12 previous occasions, there shouldn’t be much surprising either player entering into this one. Djokovic tore Verdasco apart 6-2, 6-2 in the second round of last year’s Qatar ExxonMobil Open. He worked over the lefty’s serve easily, breaking him four times on eight chances. Djokovic was solid on his own serve, saving the two break points he faced. Djokovic would win 76 percent off his first serve and 65 off his second. The win stretched his win streak over Verdasco to three matches with the Doha win, a straight sets victory at the 2015 Australian Open and a three set win in in Beijing in 2013. Verdasco’s last win in the series came in 2010 on clay in Rome. Djokovic is 5-1 in hard courts vs. Verdasco with the lone win for the Spaniard coming at the 2005 U.S. Open.

Strategy Session

For Verdasco, he must find a way to serve well against Djokovic or he’s doomed from the first ball played. The issues that Verdasco had against Goffin in round two should sound the alarms for this semifinal meeting. Goffin is a solid returner, but not in Djokovic’s class. With Verdasco having to fight through 14 break points in that one, anything remotely close to that will see Djokovic cruise by a similar scoreline to the 6-2, 6-2 match they played in Doha last year.

Djokovic will feel comfortable with this match-up, knowing that he can eat into Verdasco’s serve. That should leave him mostly to worry about maintaining consistency on his own serve to simply secure holds. Off the ground, Verdasco would probably like to keep this along the baseline as that is where he is most comfortable. I doubt Djokovic will object to those exchanges, relying on his ability to work Verdasco around the court to finish off points in his favor.

If Verdasco is to have any shot at the upset, he’ll need to use some variation and trickery to throw the Serb off on the ground game. He’s not going to go away from his whipping forehand or his double handed backhand, but shot selection is where he can try to mix it up. Go down the line when Djokovic might expect a cross court return shot, things like that. If it’s garden variety Verdasco, Djokovic is the Lawnmower Man and he’ll chew that garden up and spit it out for a win.

AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …

I don’t see much in the way of a surprise here. The best case scenario I think for Verdasco would be to make Djokovic work hard and hope he slips up late in a set to steal one. With the prospect of a final against Andy Murray, Djokovic isn’t likely to let that happen. He could at least be mildly distracted by that thought, but not enough to let this slip away.

The Pig Predicts

Djokovic wins in straight sets

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