2017 Australian Open QF Previews: Goffin vs Dimitrov, Raonic vs Nadal

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One semifinal is set with Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer advancing yesterday in straight sets. Today, we’ll settle the other two spots. Only David Goffin has not made a Grand Slam semifinal out of the players in action today. He’ll get his second try at one as he battles Grigor Dimitrov in the day’s first men’s quarterfinal at Rod Laver Arena.

(11) David Goffin vs (15) Grigor Dimitrov

Goffin has moved through this year’s Australian Open draw with little fanfare. The mighty mite of a Belgian recovered after dropping the opening set to Dominic Thiem in the fourth round. Goffin turned the tables to score the win 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-2. Goffin was the steadier player after a sloppy opening set from both that featured five breaks of serve. The Belgian would never really be threatened much on serve after the opening set as Thiem spewed forth a ton of unforc8ed errors, totaling 58 to just 45 winners. Goffin was cleaner with 38 winners to 29 unforced errors and he was solid on break conversions, cashing in on six of 15.

For the tournament, Goffin has played his game to the tee. Steady off the ground, allowing his opponents to hurt themselves with unforced errors. He’s had to face two towering servers in Reilly Opelka and Ivo Karlovic, finding a way to break both of them in a precise manner to the tune of eight breaks on 13 chances. His return game is fairly underrated, but has been on display this week. It will be a big part in deciding whether or not he can beat Dimitrov. His ground game won’t ever be super flashy, but it is solid and his ability to run down balls is a huge part of his game.

Dimitrov has stretched his win streak to start 2017 to nine after defeating a clearly flat-lining Denis Istomin in round four. Dimitrov did continue a poor habit of starting slow as Istomin took the opening set 6-2 before the Bulgarian turned things around to win 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2, 6-1. Dimitrov’s serve was solid against Istomin, winning 81 percent of the first serve points and 62 percent off his second serve. He was broken twice on seven chances. He had a fairly clean time off the ground with 37 winners and 27 unforced errors. Dimitrov has gotten been in that category the last two rounds in victories over Richard Gasquet and Istomin.

Dimitrov has been mostly solid this week. His most challenging match came in round two against the athletic Hyeon Chung. That’s good prep for this showdown with Goffin as he’ll see the same thing, great defense and ball retrieving. The bad thing for Dimitrov is Chung did cause him plenty of problems with his speed and shot making. Goffin can do similar things at a higher level. In that match, Dimitrov started slow again as he was rolled 6-1 in the first set. He would take the next three sets by scorelines of 6-4. It was also the only match where the Bulgarian racked up more unforced errors than winners, 43 to 41.

Second Grand Slam Meeting

The lone ATP Tour meeting between Goffin and Dimitrov took place at the 2014 U.S. Open. Dimitrov recovered from being bageled in the opening set to cruise 0-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 in their third round clash. They did meet three other times coming up through the ranks. All came on clay in futures and Challenger events in 2010. Dimitrov swept those meetings, dropping just one set. Since that meeting, Goffin has become a more accomplished player. The Belgian has now made the fourth round or better of Slams in five of the last seven played. Dimitrov was coming off his first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, prior to their first meeting. We all know the story the last couple of years for him with mediocre results. This year’s AO quarterfinal is his first since Wimbledon in 2014. He also made the quarters in Melbourne that year as well.

There is no question going into this one that both player’s major weakness is serve. Dimitrov however does possess more pop and can on occasion get into rhythm where he is rarely troubled. Against the quality of return he will see in Goffin, I would venture to say that Dimitrov will be challenged on serve more than he has so far this tournament. Dimitrov has been broken eight times this tournament on 29 chances. Half of those chances came against Chung. That is something he will need to avoid against Goffin who is much more clinical in converting break chances.

Goffin won’t wow with power on serve, but he does have decent variety and will rely on placement to get rallies started well for himself. Goffin has done reasonably well to avoid trouble on serve so far, yielding only eleven break chances in the last three rounds. He has been broken four times in that stretch. Dimitrov also figures to provide a bigger test for Goffin on serve. He will need to make the most of his opportunities against Goffin though or it could become frustrating if he’s unable to cash in.

Ground Battle Wins The War

The ground battle between these two figures to be the most fascinating part of this quarterfinal. With both unlikely to get a ton of cheap points off serve, rallies will be crucial. One thing Dimitrov has really worked on since his resurgence late last year is his footwork. It has allowed him to provide a bit more pop on his forehand and hit more precise and powerful backhands. Goffin’s footwork is rarely a question and that’s one of the hallmarks of how he plays. He normally puts himself into good court position to allow himself a chance in rallies. He doesn’t have the variety off the backhand that Dimitrov does, but his two-hander is consistent and he’s very good at disguising quick changes in direction off both wings.

Dimitrov’s variety was at one time a big hindrance to his overall development. Quite frankly, he had too many choices and it caused him issues in shot selection. He’s done better with that under Coach Dani Vallverdu, but it’s still a match to mach process for the Bulgarian. When he has issues, it’s often because he does the childhood freak out on crucial points and goes away from a particular game plan in that crucial moment. So far this year, those moments have been infrequent. That’s something Goffin will hope to change with his defense and seemingly endless ball retrieval. Make Dimitrov play an extra ball, make him overthink things and take advantage of those mental errors.

The Pig’s Bottom Line
Dimitrov is the hot player coming into this match and he is certainly capable of dominating this match if he serves well. I’m not totally sold on Goffin’s overall form this tournament as it is tough to gauge with who he has played. Thiem should have been a good litmus test, but he appeared to either still be bothered by his shoulder issue or just absolutely out of gas. I think Goffin’s chances here revolve on how well he gets into Dimitrov’s serve. If he is consistently putting pressure on Dimitrov there, it can have a trickle down effect onto Dimitrov’s ground strokes.

For Dimitrov to win, I think it is about doing the things that has gotten him to this point. That means his serve needs to be solid and he needs to consistently have good footwork in rallies to keep himself from being in bad positions. It would probably be a big boost if he could start quicker and not find himself digging out of a one set hole again, but he’ll have the mentality that he’s been able to do it before and can do it again. I think Dimitrov has worked very hard the last months to craft a plan to achieve success and this is the chance to prove again that it works in big situations.

Prediction: Dimitrov wins in four sets

The prime time match-up to end Day 1o end Day 10 features the highest remaining seed in #3 Milos Raonic going against 9th seeded Rafael Nadal. Nadal has looked better this week than he has for probably the better part of the last year and a half. He faces a tall order tonight though if he’s to beat Raonic. The Canadian has won two of their last three meetings, including early this year in Brisbane.

(3) Milos Raonic vs (9) Rafael Nadal

If a third seed could ever “sneak” through a draw mostly undetected, it’s been Raonic. A lot of the talk focused on the monumental upsets of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, leaving Raonic free of much distraction. As expected, his massive serve has carried him through four rounds. He’s tallied 93 aces and won 80 percent or more on first serve in three of four matches. Only the Gilles Simon match saw him lower at 72 percent. Uncharacteristically though, he has been broken three times in each of the last two rounds. For the tournament, he’s been broken six times on 23 chances. Raonic has been battling some sort of virus this week, so his play is pretty solid all things considered.

The Canadian will need to watch his unforced errors against Nadal. He had a tournament high 55 UEs last round in the four set win over Roberto Bautista Agut. That was off-set by 75 winners, but still a number that is far too high. Nadal, like RBA, will challenge Raonic to engage in rallies and have to play extra balls. If Raonic’s left with too many of those situations, it likely isn’t going to be a great set-up for hi to win this atch. He’ll also want to be a bit more ruthless in converting break chances. He let both RBA, Simon and Muller off the hook a few too any times.

Nadal quite frankly has to be very pleased with his progress to this point. After blowouts in rounds one and two against Florian Mayer and Marcos Baghdatis, he’s had to elevate his game to advance. The third round against 24th seed Alexander Zverev was particularly enthralling for Rafa. Zverev used his power advantage to put Rafa into some bad situations, but it was the Spaniard who raised not just his ground game, but his serve game as well. That was the most important thing to me to come out of the last two rounds. Nadal won right at 72 percent on first serve and 63 percent on second serve combined in those matches. He was broken five times, but save 13 break chances.

His return game has been at a very high level through the first week plus in Melbourne. Rafa has now broken his opponents 20 times on 61 chances. Despite the lower conversion rate, the Spaniard will be pleased with how many looks he’s getting at chances to break. Eventually, enough chances seem to equal Rafa getting the break. That will be particularly telling against the big serve of Raonic. On top of the improved serve, Rafa has continued his normal punishing ground game. The whipping forehand and a mostly solid backhand have served him well to this point. He’s been able to physically impose his will on his opponents and play his game – where he gets them in long rallies and wears them down.

Recent Raonic Reversal

Despite Nadal leading the head-to-head with six wins and two losses, recent play shows Raonic turning the tide in the last two years. The Canadian broke a five match losing skid to Nadal in 2015 at Indian Wells and then also beat Nadal in three sets in Brisbane to start off the 2017 season. Sandwiched in between in 2015, Rafa did score a win at last year’s Shanghai Masters 6-3, 7-6. Their most recent encounter in the Brisbane quarterfinals will yield the most relevant information. There, Raonic used the big serve for 23 aces in the 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win.

Raonic won 81 percent of his first serve points and saved six of seven break chances. Rafa was decent on serve, but Raonic came through with the two crucial breaks on just four chances. Nadal said the Brisbane meeting gives him a plan for this match, but it’s still very tough. Nadal said Raonic’s aggressive game puts a lot of pressure on him. Nadal said he needs to be extremely focused on serve and aggressive at all times or he’s in big trouble. Raonic for his part, says that win gives him confidence that he knows how to break down Nadal’s game over the course of the match.

The Pig’s Bottom Line
There is no secret that Raonic’s game plan is predicated on big serving and big ground strokes. Raonic will or should at least, seek to keep the rallies short and aggressive. That’s been the theme against Nadal, but so many have failed to commit to it or have been unable to keep it that way long enough. Raonic has obviously found a plan that has worked two of the last three times and he’ll look for something similar. When he fails to end the points short, Nadal is going to use his ground strokes to craft difficult angles for the third seed. The lefty is still so good at using his spin effectively to pin his opponent into deep and losing positions on the court.

For Nadal, serve is obviously a big part of the equation in this one as well. No matter what goes on with the ground game, if his serve isn’t strong, he can’t win. He’s come up with big serves to help get him out of trouble through four rounds and he’ll likely need that a handful of times or more against Raonic. His return game really winds up being the key to his chances to pull off the upset. He’ll have to be patient, knowing plenty of serves will fly by him.

Rafa will need to get enough racquets on the ball however to get into ground rallies. Nadal will try to chip those back deep and set up the ground exchanges, where he can try and get Raonic to play his game. That is where Raonic must attack and be aggressive in his own right. Coming to the net is always a good idea against Nadal and that should jive with Raonic’s style. If Raonic stays back and makes this an exclusively baseline encounter, then I’ll give the nod to Nadal more often than not.

I think the Brisbane success means a lot for Raonic in this match-up. Rafa may be playing better now than he was just a few weeks ago, but this is that set-up that has given him problems on faster surfaces. Power players simply have put Nadal into bad positions. He’s been able to ward off some of the young guys like Sascha Zverev who didn’t have a great game plan, but you can bet a more experienced Raonic will have the proper plan in place.

In the end, I think too much power from Raonic as long as his ground game is relatively clean. He’ll go big and I think Rafa will go home.

Prediction: Raonic wins in four sets

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