2018 Italian Open Final Preview: Rafael Nadal vs Alexander Zverev

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(1) Rafael Nadal vs (2) Alexander Zverev

The King Battles The Prince

The final of this year’s Italian Open has gifted us a battle between the two in form players on clay right now as top seed Rafael Nadal looks to unseat last year’s Rome champ Alexander Zverev. Both players are now 16-1 on clay this year with Zverev sporting a 13 match win streak to boot. Nadal beat Novak Djokovic in the semifinals 7-6 (4), 6-3 to advance to his first final in Rome since 2014. The top seed was challenged, winning just 64 percent of his first serve points against the Serb. Rafa still did better in big points though, offering up just three break chances and seeing Djokovic break one time. Djokovic on the other hand was broken three times on three chances. The 11th seed won just 60 percent of the points off his first serve.

The first set featured some great ground strokes from both players and the defending was superb. Nadal seemingly got to every ball, even if he came up short on a few shots. The big difference though came in the tiebreak, where the Spaniard was more aggressive in key moments. He hit two big shots, one off the forehand and then a backhand down-the-line to clinch the set. The forehand provided the big punches with 16 of Nadal’s 22 winners coming off that wing. And as always, Rafa seemed to dominate at the end of longer rallies. In rallies that went to double digit shots, it was Nadal winning 14 of 20 points. That’s something Zverev needs to be keenly aware of on Sunday.

For Zverev, he encountered stiff resistance from fourth seed Marin Cilic. Cilic was almost an afterthought in this stage, but he stuck with Zverev game for game. That included a tense first set tiebreak where Zverev fought off five set points, including one on Cilic’s serve. The second set saw Sascha rally after being broken in the opening game. He would pull even in the 8th game and then score a late break to close the match 7-6 (13), 7-5. Zverev was still rock solid on serve with a 79 percent win rate on first serve and he was broken just once on two break opportunities. The condition in Rome have not given him quite the boost on serve that he got in Madrid, where he was broken one time all week. This week, Zverev has been broken five times with all of those coming in the last three rounds.

As you’d expect off that scoreline, the semifinal showed a lot of big serves for easy points for both Sascha and Cilic. It was Cilic who had more trouble though with nine break points against his serve, while Zverev only saw two. Zverev spent the majority of the match along the baseline, going with power groundies that did give Cilic issues with their depth. Cilic didn’t challenge Zverev to alter that plan much, although I do think the Croat did a good job of mixing it up off his serve with some movement forward. Sascha did beat him with some passing shots, but the pressure was something that I think Cilic had to try.

The Formula

Let me start by saying this match-up is great for the sport. It’s not often that you go towards a Grand Slam and get to see the two players who are playing the best face off in one of the big tune-up tournaments. That is what we get on Sunday when Rafa and Sascha clash for the fourth time on tour. They actually met earlier this year in Davis Cup play with Nadal easing past Zverev 6-1, 6-4, 6-4. The three tour matches have also belonged to Nadal and the last was Sascha’s worst defeat at the hands of Nadal when he lost 6-1, 6-1 last year in Monte Carlo. The previous two meetings were both on hard courts with Nadal surviving a roller coaster five setter at last year’s U.S. Open and also beating Sascha in three at Indian Wells in 2016.

Obviously between the Monte Carlo match and the Davis Cup match, it is a troubling set-up to this one for Sascha. Zverev did have slightly better serve stats in the Davis Cup rubber with 57 percent win rate on first serve and a 50 percent win rate on second. He was worth at 47 and 44 in their Madrid meeting. Nadal broke him five times off of 12 chances in Madrid and then six of eight times in Davis Cup play. Sascha can take a small bit of confidence in that he broke Rafa twice in the Davis Cup match after not being able to even craft a break chance against him in Madrid.

Some will say – well Zverev is serving as well as he has all season right now – which is true, but he has not been able to find a way to beat Nadal’s return. Rafa sets up super deep and Zverev has been unable to trouble him much because of that positioning. It keeps Nadal well in front of the serve on most occasions and the Spaniard has doubled down on that by providing good depth on his return shot. That has forced Zverev back a step or two in too many instances which again puts the German into a bind. Nadal is then able to work Sascha along the baseline and Zverev has not been aggressive enough to get out of long rallies. Much like we saw with Nadal and Djokovic, the rallies that go double digits are going to favor the Spaniard over Zverev as well.

In that vein, Sascha needs to be more aggressive in those baseline exchanges. Nadal’s defense runs down too many of the shots he puts back across in an effort to move Rafa around. You just are not going to find a ton of success on clay with that game plan. I think for Zverev to compete with a real chance to contend, he’s got to look to hit big and hit those angles that can trouble Nadal. That means taking chances to corners of the court where Rafa has to scramble for that next shot. Zverev simply has not put himself into enough winning positions on the court against Nadal and I think that relays back to not being aggressive enough with his groundies.

The other thing he has to improve on is returning Nadal’s serve. Zverev has to find that aggressive nature there to and try to find Nadal’s backhand more with the return ball. Littering Nadal with a bunch of soft returns to his forehand side is suicide, where the Spaniard usually turns ultra aggressive and crushes that next ball into a winning position. He did it a little better in their Davis Cup match at times, but has still struggled to really provide enough depth in return – especially setting behind the baseline as he has done against Rafa.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

On clay, this is a difficult prospect for Zverev. He will certainly have confidence due to his current run on the surface, but he has been easily frustrated in their two clashes on clay. That is one of the things that can get the second seed into a ton of trouble early on. He’s got to find some success against Nadal early to improve his mental state. For me, I’d rather go aggressively at Nadal and miss shots rather than play into Nadal’s baseline rhythm and then throw a tantrum because I’m stubborn and think I can play through the King of Clay on his surface. That has always been a fault for Zverev early in his career, a lack of willingness to try a different approach against certain opponents.

For me, this is a bad match-up overall for Zverev. Nadal plays the type of tennis that Zverev has had trouble with in the past. That is physical, grueling rallies where he cannot outhit his opponent’s defense and his own defense isn’t up to snuff. Yes, his serve is improved, but the conditions in Rome still don’t translate to him getting much extra help as it did in Madrid. The plus of course is that this is best of three and that means Zverev could punch Nadal hard early and bully his way to two sets before Nadal rights the ship. The minus is that there has been zero indication on clay that Zverev is capable of doing so.

Don’t forget this is Zverev’s third straight final in three weeks. That is quite a bit of tennis, even if he’s been winning in straight a lot. The worst guy you can go against when your wheels might be going just a bit is Nadal. Look for Rafa to test those legs plenty in this one and that can also play into diminishing the Sascha serve. I think Rafa gets back on top in Rome on Sunday and heads to Roland Garros with the idea that no one can beat him in a best of five.

Prediction: Nadal wins in straight sets

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2018 Italian Open SF Preview: Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic

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(1) Rafael Nadal vs (11) Novak Djokovic

Path to the Semifinals

This was a big week for Rafael Nadal to bounce back after the unexpected loss to Dominic Thiem in Madrid. Nadal did drop a set to Fabio Fognini in the quarterfinals, but dominated the final two sets to take the win 4-6, 6-1, 6-2. Rafa cruised through rounds one and two with straight sets wins over Damir Dzumhur and Denis Shapovalov. He beat Dzymhur 6-1, 6-0 and took down Shapovalov 6-4, 6-1. He’s impressively converted 14 breaks of serve this week on 28 chances in helping him end a three year drought, where he had lost in the quarterfinals from 2015-2017.

The Fognini match marked the first time this week that Rafa had faced any break points. The Italian crafted two breaks on five chances with both coming in the first set after the Spaniard had established a break lead at 4-1. Rafa credited Fognini with dictating play from the baseline in the opening set to rally for the set win, saying that the Italian took the ball earlier than Nadal did. The top seed would credit his own turnaround in the remainder of the match with increased aggressiveness with his forehand. Rafa never changed his court position, staying deep behind the baseline, but you could see as his forehand took over that Fognini was being pushed further behind the baseline in the rallies.

Djokovic encountered his toughest test of the week in the form of Kei Nishikori. Despite having beaten Nishikori in eleven straight matches, it was the 2014 U.S. Open finalist who jumped all over the Serb in the opening set. Nishikori came out super aggressive with his ground strokes, firing on all cylinders with his forehand and backhand. Nothing Djokovic through at him, including drop shots, flustered the unseeded Japanese. A big moment in the match came when Djokovic saved a break point to open the second set which seemingly fired him up as he then become very aggressive both in return and with his ground strokes.

The final set was topsy turvy with the 11th seed seemingly in control after an early break. Nishikori broke right back however and then set teetered on a few points with Djokovic ultimately getting a big break to go back up 4-3 and then sealing the deal with another to take the match 2-6, 6-1, 6-3. As expected, the quality return of Nishikori did hassle the Serb into four breaks of serve off nine chances. He was broken just once during his straight sets runs over Alexandr Dolgopolov, Nikoloz Basilashvili and Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the first three rounds.

It was no shock to see Djokovic sporting more pedestrian numbers on serve on Friday with a 67 percent win rate off his first serve and just 40 percent off is second. He had not been below 73 percent on first serve and 59 percent off his second all week prior to the quarters. Nadal maintined solid numbers all week with his serve, winning 76 percent or better off his first serve through three matches. Twice the Spaniard was over 80 percent with his second serve win rate and a more “average” showing against Fognini at 59 percent.

The Formula

Here we are for meeting 51 in this great rivalry with Djokovic still slightly head at 26 wins to 24 for Nadal. It was Rafa however that won the last meeting in Madrid last summer in straight sets 6-2, 6-4 to break a seven match losing skid in the series. That was the first meeting since Rome in 2016 when Djokovic ousted Nadal in the quarters 7-5, 7-6 (4). So they have played just twice in two years and really just once since the Serb began his fall from the top after winning the French Open in 2016. That should make for a fascinating watch on Saturday.

Truly we know Nadal has been playing some of the best tennis of his career on clay in the last year with just two losses in his last 24 tour matches on the surface. As for Djokovic, there were plenty of questions before Rome as to where he stood. He has certainly helped boost his confidence ahead of this clash, but is he ready for a fight against Rafa? The meeting in Madrid last year says no and the struggle that Djokovic had against Nishikori on Friday echoes that same sentiment, but I digress.

Peeking back at the tape from Madrid in 2017, Djokovic looked out of sorts from the get-go. His shots did not have much depth to them and that left Nadal to aggressively gobble him up. The Serb also made a flood of unforced errors that didn’t allow him much chance to recover from an early deficit. Djokovic won just 56 percent off his first serve and 47 percent off his second. He was pestered for four breaks on seven chances, while Nadal was broken just once and had win rates on serve of 78 and 50 percent. So what was different from those seven previous times that Djokovic won?

If you go back to their Rome meeting two years ago, you see a Djokovic who was hitting his ground strokes cleaner and with better depth. That is a big key to contending against Nadal on this surface. It was high quality from both really with both players eating some into the other’s first serve. Djokovic broke Nadal three times, while Nadal scored two. It was the Serb who applied the consistent pressure though with nine break chances compared to just three off his own serve. If you go back through Djokovic’s win streak prior to Madrid, that was a pretty big part of the formula. But can he do that in his current state?

As far as the ground battles go, there will be a lot of baseline to baseline play. Nadal will keep his deep position and that will entice Djokovic to use those drop shots to force Rafa to move quickly towards the net. Djokovic has to respond well when Nadal gets to those with volleys at the net. This was also an effective part of the Djokovic win streak over Rafa, so look for him to mix those drop shots into the flow of play. The forehands of both figure to be a big reason why they win or lose. I think aggressive hitting off that wing equals success. Djokovic may mix in those change-ups with his forehand and backhand that elevate the ball a little more to try and keep Nadal from getting maximum power on his forehand. That should give him a chance to turn the next shot into a potential advantage.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

I think I’d be more excited to see this match-up in a few weeks in Paris when Djokovic has some best of five play under his belt and the opportunity to continue to build on his confidence. Given where both players are right now, Nadal is an obvious favorite. His serve has not dipped much in effectiveness on clay this season, while we’ve seen some wobbles from Djokovic late against Ramos-Vinolas and then again against Nishikori. That is the worrisome thing for the Serb heading into this one. If he’s the one with pressure against his serve consistently, Nadal will be aggressive and try to put him away early.

The interesting part of this is that Djokovic does have the mentality going into matches against Rafa that he can beat him on clay and in a best of three, that might be his best chance right now. I think the problem though is that although he has improved his consistency over the past week, he’s still not been challenged to play at the highest level possible to beat the best over the course of three sets. That’s likely to be the challenge for Djokovic on Saturday. I think it will be on the Serb to raise his level to match Nadal, rather than vice versa. Maybe in a few weeks this has a better shot at going either way, especially with this match giving Djokovic a true read on where he is at against the best of the best. Saturday? I think it’s Rafa.

Prediction: Nadal wins in straight sets

2018 Italian Open QF Preview: Novak Djokovic vs Kei Nishikori

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(11) Novak Djokovic vs Kei Nishikori

Serb Surging, But Bigger Test Awaits

When you’re desperate for wins and confidence, you’ll take every win you can get. That describes Novak Djokovic’s current status pretty well as the Serb has won three straight matches at a tournament for just the second time this season. His latest win was a straight sets 6-1, 7-5 win over Albert Ramos-Vinolas. Djokovic has won all three matches this week in Rome in straights en route to his first quarterfinal of 2018. The 11th seed has displayed some of his best serving of the season, albeit against guys not known as gifted returners. His first serve win rate was under 80 percent for the first time this week against Ramos-Vinolas, finishing at 73 percent thanks to a late wobble on serve.

He’s been stingy for the most part, allowing just one break of serve in three matches. That’s a massive confidence builder despite the competition being in the form of Alexandr Dolgopolov, Nikoloz Basilashvili and Ramos-Vinolas. From what I’ve seen in the highlight packages this week, Djokovic’s serve has been more effective with the Serb sporting better accuracy and depth. He’s often been able to stretch the returner a bit wide, opening up the court better for the next ball. Djokovic has also mixed in some aggressive net rushing when he gets soft contact back off the return.

I think both are positive signs for him, but he still needs the consistency from match to match to be a bit higher. The let down late in the second set against Ramos-Vinolas could have wound up sending the match to three sets, but to his credit, Djokovic did break back and eventually closed the match out. Against someone like Nishikori, even with the past dominance, you don’t want to let a dangerous player back up off the mat like he did with the Spaniard on Thursday

Nishikori Seeking to End Prolonged Djokovic Losing Streak

Kei Nishikori blasted his way into the quarterfinals by dismantling Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-1, 6-2. Nishikori was rarely troubled by the German as he won 74 percent of his service points without being broken. Kohlschreiber mounted just two break chances with Nishikori fighting both of them off. Oppositely, the man from Japan was all over the German’s serve for four breaks on seven chances. Nishikori would win 53 percent of the points played on Kohlschreiber’s serve. That’s been the story through three rounds with Nishikori coming up with big break conversions to the tune of eleven breaks now on 26 chances.

Nishikori’s best asset this week has been his aggressive play. He stated after his somewhat miraculous win over Grigor Dimitrov in round two that the key moment in that match was when he stopped letting Dimitrov dictate the points. Nishikori scored two critical breaks in the final two sets of that match, when trailing 4-3. As for the Kohlschreiber match, Nishikori played a comfortable baseline match. He hammered the ball, especially his backhand, to attack and keep the German pinned back. Nishikori’s return provided depth that sent Kohlschreiber into recovery mode off his serve, instead of attacking with the next ball. That almost always works out well for the returner.

This will be the second clash between Djokovic and Nishikori in the past two weeks. It was Djokovic who won his 11th straight over Nishikori 7-5, 6-4 in opening round play in Madrid. That is eleven straight matches since Nishikori’s stunning U.S. Open win in 2014. Nishikori has now taken just one set out of the last 16 played since the beginning of 2016. There wasn’t much to separate the two last time with similar serve stats. It was the Serb who had the better play in key moments though, staving off five of six break chances againsth is serve. Djokovic would convert three breaks of Nishikori on seven chances.

The Formula

It’s nice to be able to go right to the tape from just a week or so ago to break down what worked for Djokovic this time around, especially considering they had not played since late 2016. For me, one of the biggest things was Djokovic’s aggressive level of play. I think playing someone he considered as a big win had the Serb mentally in the match from ball one. Where he was most aggressive was his forehand. This was evident in return, where Djokovic upped that aggression on second serves and took some big cracks with the forehand that went for winners.

It has always been apparent in this match-up that Djokovic does not fear Nishikori’s serve. He has had few issues getting into both the first and second serves of Nishikori. If that doesn’t change, Nishikori stands little chance to reverse how things have gone against the Serb. Nishikori’s issue has been trying to beat the length of Djokovic who has a tremendous wingspan, enabling him to stretch for some balls that “normal” returners might not get. Djokovic is also still one of the best at recovering off those stretched moments and getting back to the next ball. For me, Nishikori needs to take a page from the Serb’s game plan and go more aggressive himself.

When he gets those stretched moments on Djokovic, he needs to move in and attack with purpose. I think he’s often simply tried to beat Djokovic in those instances by putting the ball into the court opposite of where the Serb just made the save. Nishikori would do well to mix that up tactically and go right back at Djokovic on occasion. Even if the Serb pivots and is able to make the shot, it gives him something else to think about That might make him just a step slower then next time Nishikori has an open part of the court to go to – a step that might prevent Djokovic from tracking down a potential winner.

There will certainly still be plenty of lengthy baseline rallies in this match. Djokovic needs to be weary of the Nishikori backhand as he bigger weapon. Kei’s forehand is solid, but the double handed backhand is the money maker for me. Nishikori hits it with power and pace equally well to any area on court. Djokovic has never shied away from that wing, but he’s got to be careful about where his shot puts Nishikori into position for the backhands. If Nishikori gets time to settle and rip, he’s going to challenge Djokovic with great depth and usually a fantastic angle.

One of the ways that Djokovic has done a good job of keeping out of Nishikori’s strike zone is varying the pace of his own backhand. I’ve noticed he has utilized a change-up of sorts that elevates the bounce of his backhand. That doesn’t allow for as clean a strike on the ball for his opponent. I still don’t think patience is the best option for Nishikori in those rallies. He has to find an opening and take some risks. Djokovic is hitting the ball cleaner and with more confidence, so there is likely going to be less opportunity to break him down in a longer rally.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

The head-to-head says it all. Djokovic was short on confidence and wins in Madrid and once again took down Nishikori. I think the one thing that gives Nishikori a shot to perhaps at least start fast is that this will be the Serb’s biggest test this week and an entirely different look from what he’s seen in his first three opponents. Nishikori needs to find a way to put some stress on the Serb to test that mental aspect that is still one of the most suspect things surrounding this version of Djokovic.

It is difficult seeing Nishikori coming through with the win in this one, although it is sometimes tougher to beat the same player in successive weeks. I don’t expect that Djokovic’s serve will be quite the weapon it has been for most of the week with Nishikori as a quality returner. Thus, I can see Nishikori perhaps stealing a set in this one and he might even be in the driver’s seat for a minute in a set. In the end though, I think Djokovic has shown that he knows how to break Nishikori’s serve down and consistently beat him in the big points from the baseline.

Prediction: Djokovic wins in three sets

2018 Italian Open R3 Preview: Juan Martin Del Potro vs David Goffin

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(5) Juan Martin Del Potro vs (9) David Goffin

The Outsiders

Technically everyone still seems an outsider against Rafael Nadal on clay, but at least Alexander Zverev might be a notch closer. Juan Martin Del Potro and David Goffin are part of that “outsiders” group that includes the rest of the top ten behind Rafa. They’re peripheral actors in Nadal’s clay court tennis show. They’re there, but are they really part of the story? That is what both Del Potro and Goffin are trying to prove in Rome, that yes, they are part of the story and contenders on clay.

Del Potro started strong in Rome with a 7-5, 6-3 win over Stefanos Tsitsipas. DelPo got two late breaks off the Greek teen in the opening set to complete a comeback after falling behind in the third game. Overall his stats were impressive with an 82 percent win rate on first serve and 59 percent off his second. He was broken just that one time early on with Tsitsipas failing to convert on the only other chance he saw off the Argentine’s serve. Del Potro did a nice job of making Tsitsipas pay for setting up deep in return. The fifth seed still found the depth to keep the Greek pushed back and then aggressively finished at the net off those short balls.

I thought Del Potro was very aggressive in return against the Greek. He moved inside the baseline routinely on Tsitsipas’ second serve, of which there were plenty with the Greek landing just 51 percent of his first serves in play. Del Potro walloped those second serves to win 49 percent of the points. Tsitsipas went after the Argentine’s backhand, but Del Potro was solid most of the match with the double hander and also mixing in some slice to enable him to get back around to his forehand. Overall, he appeared comfortable and showed good wheels moving east an west as well as moving to net when play dictated that was necessary.

After blistering through his opener against Leonardo Mayer, David Goffin made his round two match against Marco Cecchinato more difficult than necessary. After storming to a 5-1 lead in the opening set, the Belgian fell apart as he allowed Cecchinato to come all the way back to take the set at 7-5. Goffin would right the ship from there however, taking the next two sets by identical scorelines of 6-2. It was Goffin’s second serve that got pounded in the first set, where he lost 12 of 17 points played. Over the final two sets, he was broken just once on one break chance. The Belgian would win 33 of the last 44 points on his serve.

The Formula

This is a classic match-up of offense versus defense. In two prior meetings in 2016, Del Potro won indoors in Basel 7-5, 6-3 and Goffin won outdoors in Shanghai 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. In that first meeting in Shanghai, Del Potro struggled with eleven break chances against his serve. Goffin converted four times. The Basel meeting saw just two breaks of the Argentine’s serve on four opportunities. Goffin struggled mightily in that one with his second serve taking just 36 percent of the points. He was broken all four times he faced a break point.

In Shanghai, Goffin did a really good job at keeping Del Potro corned on the baseline. He wasn’t afraid to go after the DelPo forehand, even though he did get beat quite a bit in doing so. The Belgian kept Del Potro contained however by pinning him to the outside edge of the court, which opened up the rest of the court to punish Del Potro’s bad court positioning. When they met again in Basel, DelPo did a better job in recovery along the baseline and he did not let himself get bullied by Goffin’s baseline game. In turn, it was Del Potro’s punishing ground strokes that pushed the Belgian around and led to the win.

On clay, Goffin’s speed would figure to play into this one with Del Potro looking for ways to play through the Belgian with his big hitting capability. I think that starts with the serve of Del Potro. Against Tsitsipas, DelPo found the depth to control the points off serve. He’ll be challenged more by a better return in Goffin. Expect that Del Potro will look to utilize the serves wide a bit more, instead of going to the body and bullying Goffin as he did with the Greek. Goffin is a better scrambler and adjusts to those serve better, where he doesn’t get tied up as Tsitsipas did on ocassion.

Goffin’s goal in return is to make solid contact and not give Del Potro those floating short balls that the Argentine can move in on and destroy. The 9th seed needs to find some depth in return and will of course look to go after the Del Potro backhand. For Goffin on serve, he needs to avoid second serves. His first serve is adequate although still at times not enough. His second serve is another story. It’s soft and his lack of confidence with it can be seen too often when things start going away from him. I’d look for Del Potro to again be super aggressive on second serves.

From baseline to baseline, it’s about avoiding the Del Potro forehand with those easy wheel house shots. Goffin can go after DelPo’s forehand, but he must force the Argentine to hit from moving positions. When Del Potro back pedals to get around to the forehand, he may still get big time power on that shot, but his court positioning is thrown off a bit. If Goffin can push DelPo into those sort of forehands, he will feel like he can control the rally from there by sending Del Potro scurrying to recover for the next shot cross court. I do think Del Potro has much more confidence in the backhand at this point too. Opponents continue to test that wing and he continues to show that it’s not the liability it was a couple of years ago in his return from wrist problems.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

For Del Potro, he is indeed hitting the backhand much better at this point than he was when these two met those two times late in 2016. The Shanghai meeting was especially challenging for DelPo coming off the U.S. Open quarterfinal and then the emotionally draining five set war against Andy Murray in Davis Cup play. I think the Basel meeting may have been a truer representation of this match-up. Now on clay however, Del Potro has to prove he can utilize that power advantage on a slower surface.

This is still a dangerous match-up for Del Potro with a fierce defender across the net, someone who will hunt down all his shots. Del Potro must hit his serve accurately with power to do the job in stretching Goffin in return. If Goffin is left to hit clean returns, then this is going to be a bad day at the office for DelPo. I think serve is going to be the big difference in this one if Del Potro maintains a level like he did in his opener. That gets him easier points and can get him out of jams better than Goffin’s serve can.

That was one of the issues for Goffin in losing to Kyle Edmund in Madrid. Del Potro brings those similar qualities that Edmund possesses at an even better level; huge serve and huge forehand. An upset certainly is possible if Del Potro can’t get his serve going against the return of Goffin and I did puff up the Belgian’s chances of doing so in the tournament preview this week. However, that flighty set he had against Cecchinato reminded me that he’s somewhat fragile still.

I think Del Potro has shown that he can break down Goffin when he is properly rested and prepared as he should be in this spot, but this could definitely be a big battle given the surface that should help Goffin get to more balls.

Prediction: Del Potro wins in three sets

2018 Mutua Madrid Open Semifinals Preview

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(5) Dominic Thiem vs (6) Kevin Anderson

Thiem The Conqueror

This was supposed to be Rafael Nadal against Juan Martin Del Potro, maybe Rafa against Roberto Bautista Agut. Yet, here we are in a post Thanos finger snap-like environment with the top seed out and a Dominic Thiem-Kevin Anderson semifinal in Madrid. As crazy as it is, let’s give props to the two combatants in this first semifinal. It was Thiem who scored the trifecta in beating Nadal in straight sets 7-5, 6-3. He ended Rafa’s clay court win streak at 21 (including Davis Cup play), ended his streak of 50 straight sets won on clay and also ended Nadal’s latest reign as the world’s #1 ranked player.

That’s a mouthful, especially considering that the Austrian barely survived against Borna Coric in a thrilling three setter in the previous round. And considering that Stefanos Tsitsipas had crushed him in Barcelona in the quarters last week 6-3, 6-2 or that Nadal himself had whipped Thiem 6-0, 6-2 in Monte Carlo. Still, on this day, Thiem was better. Nadal certainly made a number of unforced errors that we haven’t seen from him in months. That’s the nature of the game. Thiem forced a dozen break chances off of the Nadal serve that had been broken just once all tournament. The Austrian scored five breaks of serve in all.

Where Thiem excelled in this one was pounding on Nadal’s second serve, winning 21 of 32 points played. The fifth seed had great depth on most of his return shots, forcing Nadal to pedal back a step or two quite often. From there, the Austrian kept a consistent level of aggressive play on his ground strokes that Rafa simply could not contend with on the day. Both Thiem’s forehand and backhand were rock solid and he did a good job of utilizing the acres of space that Nadal gives up in playing that super deep return position. It’s not often that someone is able to do that enough to beat the Spaniard.

After the match, Nadal credited Thiem for the win, but also said it was certainly as most saw it – a subpar performance; “I think that today I didn’t read the ball well enough to be able to handle the situation, to put him into places where he didn’t feel comfortable. I was not good enough with my forehand or my backhand to open up to his forehand.”

Anderson Outlasts Lajovic in Three

Kevin Anderson found some needed momentum early in this tournament after dropping his first clay court match of the season in Barcelona to Tsitsipas. He battled past Mikhail Kukushkin in three sets to start and then ended Philipp Kohlschreiber’s stay in Madrid in straights. On Friday, he went against Dusan Lajovic who had knocked out Del Potro on Thursday. After scrapping through the first set tie break, Anderson was forced to rally to snag the 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-3 win. His first serve wasn’t quite firing at just a 68 percent win rate, compared to near 80 in the first two rounds. That allowed Lajovic to get a couple breaks of serve.

Anderson did look good with his second serve though with a 73 percent win rate in what turned out to be a very tight match overall. When Big Kev wasn’t getting east points off of aces (15), he was using his bigger firepower to keep Lajovic well behind the baseline in defense. To Lajovic’s credit, he ran down a lot of shots, but Anderson wore him down over the course of the match with his depth and being able to continually move the Serb east and west across the court. It stands as another landmark win for Anderson after the age of 30 with the South African securing his first Masters 1000 semifinal with Friday’s win.

The Formula

Anderson has ruled this match-up in the past, beating Thiem six of six times they have met. That includes an injury retirement at the Rogers Cup in 2016. The last time they met, Anderson edged Thiem 6-3, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (7) at the Citi Open last summer. That was the third straight match in the series that had gone to three sets that ended with tie breaks in the last two sets. Thiem has been close to getting that first win, but not close enough. It is worth noting that all six previous encounters have taken place on hard courts.

Clay may take some of the bite off of Anderson’s serve overall, but the conditions in Madrid with the higher altitude than most ATP stops does negate that some. The ball does travel a bit faster here and that won’t hurt Anderson who has more power on serve. That is the area where I feel like he’s got the definite edge in this match-up. They did have similar serve numbers in the Citi Open match last summer, but Thiem’s serve came under more pressure with eight break opportunities against compared to just four against Anderson.

In their career clashes, that is one of the big things that stands out in addition obviously to the vast amount of aces Anderson gets in comparison to Thiem. The two may be directly related as the pressure has to build on Thiem as the match wears on if he cannot get into Anderson’s serve enough to get more than a few cracks at a break. So what can he do differently? There’s not a ton he can do when Anderson’s serve is in rhythm and the balls are getting on him quickly. He’s lucky at times to be able to chip a return back. He could adjust his return position a bit deeper to try and get a better look at the serve, but he has seemed content in not doing that in the past.

If Anderson is hitting the big serve and getting those chipped or ineffective returns from Thiem, it plays into his strengths right away. Anderson wants to play short, electric points that gear towards him finishing with his forehand. He isn’t afraid to move forward and kill shots off at the earliest chance possible. I think that’s an especially smart play against Thiem who would rather turn this into a baseline to baseline bash fest, where his fitness could win out. If the Austrian can get Anderson into more of those lengthy rallies, he can hurt Anderson with depth off both wings and really go after the Anderson backhand.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

This shapes up to be another close one even if clay should give Thiem a bit more comfort over hard courts. Thiem will obvious be high on confidence after the enormous win over Nadal, so it would be a let down to see him lose in this spot. He did make the Madrid final last year too, so the courts do jive with his game overall. This is also a potential letdown for Anderson with his breakthrough into a Masters semifinal after failing on ten previous attempts. That puts this one on a knife’s edge to see who gets to the final.

This definitely looks like the best shot for Thiem to get win #1 against Anderson with the surface being his best, but Anderson’s serve is still going to be fierce in the altitude. As always with Thiem, the first serve win rate is a key stat to watch. When he’s hitting about what he got against Nadal (74%) or better, he becomes more difficult to beat. That said, this could become more mental than anything and having failed so many times against any one person is hard to overcome without a positive result to power you through.

I’m gonna be pig headed here though and ride the higher confidence of Thiem, but this could well again be settled in a tie break. That makes this pretty close to a 50-50 call.

Prediction: Thiem wins in three sets

(2) Alexander Zverev vs Denis Shapovalov

Sascha Masters His Domain

The second seed is into his third Masters 1000 semifinal of 2018 after beating 7th seed John Isner 6-4, 7-5 on Friday. Zverev has made the final in Miami, the semis in Monte Carlo and now the semis in Madrid. Sascha is also riding a seven match winning streak after taking the title in Munich last week. Against Isner, Zverev’s serve continued to sizzle with the German sporting win rates of 83 percent on first serve and 100 percent on second serve. Isner never really challenged Zverev’s serve and was not at his best with his own serve only taking 61 percent of the points. Zverev was able to craft two breaks of serve off seven chances.

In watching the tape, Zverev was the dominant player in this one. His depth in his groundstrokes kept Isner pinned back and unable to rally from east to west enough in defense. Zverev did a wonderful job of hitting Isner with quick 1-2 punches off his serve. He pushed Isner wide and then made some brilliant cross court shots that the American had no chance to track down. On return, he adapted a deeper position that did allow him to get more racquets on Isner’s serves. I think the thing he did best was not being frustrated when Isner hammered him with big serves. Zverev kept in those games and eventually found his spots where Isner wasn’t as accurate to pounce on.

Shapovalov Sizzles, Advances to Second Masters Semifinal

It’s been a thrilling and satisfying week already for the young Canadian Denis Shapovalov. The 19-year-old came to Madrid without a single win on clay on the ATP World Tour. Now, here he is into his second Masters semifinal after outlasting Kyle Edmund 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-4. Shapovalov was solid on serve, winning 80 percent of the points off his first and 72 percent off his second. Edmund was only able to break him one time on three tries. El Shapo slammed eleven aces in a performance that pushed his record to 2-2 against the Brit and offered payback for Edmund’s win over the Canadian in Brisbane in January.

The one break of Shapovalov’s serve came in the opening game of the match. After that, he settled in and did a fine job of stretching the Brit out in return. That left him with plenty of short balls to attack and the Canadian didn’t disappoint. Both his forehand and one-handed backhand were equally effective in that respect with Edmund unable to scramble back when Shapovalov pushed him back with depth and precision on serve. It was a composed performance where Shapovalov’s defense was great along the baseline and his hitting was clean. He wasn’t challenged to do a ton that was uncomfortable for him in this match and I think that is where Zverev likely has a better shot to KO Shapovalov on Saturday.

The Formula

This is round three in what could become a great rivalry as Shapovalov grows and continues his ascent in the rankings. The lone meeting in official ATP Tour play so far saw Zverev edge Shapovalov in the Canadian’s other Masters semifinal at last year’s Rogers Cup. Zverev came out on top 6-4, 7-5. That was Shapovalov’s breakout tournament with his huge win over Nadal early in the tournament. Against Zverev though, Shapovalov may have been about out of gas after a great run. His serve numbers dipped with Shapovalov winning only 64 percent of his first serve points, but a solid 60 percent off his second. Sascha was the one who came up big on break chances, converting three of three against the Canadian. Zverev was stout on serve with win rates at 81 and 62 percent. He would save six of seven break points.

The two also met later in 2017 in Laver Cup play, although that tournament doesn’t carry with it any official ATP points. Zverev edged that one in two tie breaks. Both players have been in good rhythm on serve this week with Sascha having not been broken in three matches this week. Shapovalov has been broken four times, but three of those came in the Benoit Paire match. Otherwise, he has been equal to the task with an electric serve. In looking at some of the tape from the matches these two were involved in, Shapovalov really has owned the wide serve to Zverev’s forehand return. He was a bit less effective against the backhand return, although when he hits his spot wide – Sascha was left stretched too far to recover several times. I expect the Canadian to attack the wide side again off both wings.

For Sascha, it will be interesting to see if he sets up a little bit deeper as he did against Isner on Friday. In the Laver Cup meeting, Zverev especially didn’t appear to have a great read on the Shapovalov serve and at times resorted more to guessing in an effort to get better contact in return. I think the deeper return position can help him get better contact, but his returns need to have depth or Shapovalov will gobble those soft shots back and aggressively attack them. For Zverev, the pattern of serve has been pretty consistent against the Canadian. He likes to attack the backhand and has tied El Shapo up quite a few times with body serves and Shapovalov has generally just not had great contact off that wing. Look for Sascha to keep pounding that side until the Canadian proves he can do any damage consistently.

This certainly will feature a ton of baseline to baseline play. It’s where both are very comfortable and in Zverev’s case, where he sometimes stays to a fault. Shapovalov is without a doubt the one who is more at ease with his volley game and moving forward. Look for him to test out Sascha in that regard. Shapovalov will have a better chance for an upset if he keeps Zverev on the move. When Sascha had time to set up against him, he was super solid with his ground strokes and hit the inside-out forehand with good pop and accuracy. Keeping the second seed on the move will allow Shapovalov to utilize the low ball against his taller opponent. This is a tactic that does give Zverev some trouble, but one that not a lot of players are able to consistently use.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

I think this is going to be another tight match as both their previous encounters have been, but all four sets have gone to Sascha. I think the difficulty for Shapovalov lies in his return in this one. Zverev has been able to have his way against the Canadian without Shapovalov able to adjust to all the targets on his backhand. He’s gotten some good returns off that wing, but mostly it’s been Sascha’s advantage when targeting that wing. I think Shapovalov has to solve that issue or he’ll be up against it again.

The positive in this match-up is that Shapovalov has also had his way using those wide serves to extend Zverev or often just flat out beat him to the wide side in either the deuce or ad court. I believe what makes Zverev even more dangerous this time is that his forehand has not been much of a liability in the last few months. He’s found better consistency with that shot to add to his already strong backhand. The worry for Shapovalov may also be the issue of energy. He is coming off a two and a half hour war with Edmund and has played four matches this week to three for Zverev, who has won in straights all week.

It may not be greatly noticed, but a little less spring in the legs means a little less effectiveness on serve and that can lead to those handful of decisive points that go the other way. I think the best thing for Shapovalov obviously would be a quick start and an opening set win. That boosts his confidence to prove he can win one from Sascha and shows the second seed that he is in for a fight. The feeling for me is that Zverev is in a good zone on clay right now and even though Shapovalov has proven himself capable on clay, this is a bigger step up. I don’t doubt he can take a set, but I think Zverev heads to the final.

Prediction: Zverev wins in three sets