(5) Roberto Bautista Agut vs Robin Haase
RBA, the Auckland Annihilator
Roberto Bautista Agut ran his record at the ASB Classic to 11-2 with a quarterfinal win over Jiri Vesely 7-6 (1), 6-2. This is his third semifinal in Auckland in four trips to the main draw. He won the tournament in 2016. RBA tallied the opening break to take a 3-1 lead in the opening set, but was broken back immediately. Vesely stayed on serve to the tiebreak with neither facing a break point the rest of the way. In the breaker, RBA rolled 7-1 and set the stage for a smash and grab job in set two. He would break Vesely twice in the set en route to the win. The fifth seed sported solid numbers overall with win rates at 75 and 83 percent respectively on first and second serves.
Bautista Agut has only really had one bad set this week, his first against Steve Johnson in round two. He dropped that set 6-2, but then crushed the American 6-2, 6-1 in the next two sets. RBA has credited the weather conditions for being perfectly suited to his game this week. The Spaniard has been more aggressive with his forehand consistently and it has paid dividends. He’s been ruthless in converting break chances, taking 12 breaks out of 16 chances for a superb 75 percent cash-in rate on breaks.
Haase Takes Advantage in Weakened Quarter
Veteran Robin Haase has scooted through to the semifinals in a quarter that saw 8th seed Andrey Rublev withdraw before the tournament started. Good fortune continued for Haase when top seed Jack Sock struggled and was one and done via Peter Gojowczyk in straight sets in round two. That has left Haase to qualifier Casper Ruud in round one, lucky loser Lukas Lacko in round two and then Gojo in the quarters. Haase has won six straight sets now after being bageled to start the tournament by Ruud.
It hasn’t all been great tennis for Haase as he didn’t flash his best in the quarters, but had enough to beat Gojowczyk 6-4, 6-4. Haase faced ten break points, but saved eight of them. He would win just 63 percent of his first serve points, while winning 59 percent off his second. The first serve numbers were down from his best at 75 percent against Ruud. He also did not get as many freebies against Gojo, tallying just four aces after firing 25 total in the first two rounds. What he has done well, like Bautista Agut, is convert break points. The Dutchman has broken his opponents seven times on ten chances.
This will be their second career meeting with Haase winning on clay in Casblanca in three sets back in 2013. Hard courts should favor the more consistent Bautista Agut. As mentioned earlier, RBA has been a bit more aggressive with his forehand this year and it’s working well. He’s not going to wow you with power off either wing, but there is really no weakness between the forehand and backhand. Both are consistent and his game is built on that consistency and ability to make his opponent hit the extra shot.
In rallies, RBA can control the points well if he’s allowed to dictate the action from the baseline. Often against Vesely, he was in a central position on the baseline and was able to breakdown the Czech with superior shot selection. The Spaniard did a good job of mixing in tactics as he was not afraid to move in on occassion to be more aggressive. Often, that came off his forehand. I’d expect him to exploit Haase’s movement by employing that tactic again.
Haase will need to find a way to make RBA move around the court if he’s going to find success. He also must show improvement with his serve. The level he had against Gojo won’t likely cut it against RBA. Bautista Agut isn’t a creative returner, but he’s solid. When he’s getting his racket on his opponent’s serve regularly, he’s usually got himself established in the match and a leg up to start rallies. Haase will need to bring the power he showed in the first two rounds off his serve to push RBA back and get himself the superior position to start ground exchanges, if he’s not getting cheap points with aces.
This is a tough match-up for Haase in my opinion. RBA is comfortable on these courts and in these conditions. The Spaniard has looked dominant more often than he’s looked vulnerable. If he serves well, Haase will need something special to beat him and I’m not sure he has that in his bag in New Zealand this week. Haase has done some good work in Auckland in the past, making the quarters last year and playing Kevin Anderson tough before going out in round two in 2016. I think he can keep this match tight for a while, if he brings the hammer on serve.
More often though, Haase struggles to beat better players consistently on this surface and that’s why his win rate on hard courts is below 45 percent for his career. RBA has thrived on hard courts, winning nearly 62 percent of his career matches. Three of his last four titles have come outdoors on hard courts, including the 2016 win here in Auckland. I liked Bautista Agut at the beginning of this tournament to set up for a deep run and I think he goes at least one step farther.
Pig’s Bottom Line: Bautista Agut wins in straight sets
(2) Juan Martin Del Potro vs (7) David Ferrer
Aggressive Ferrer Feeling Fit
David Ferrer says he has felt as good as he has in a long time during his last two wins in Auckland. His latest came via a 6-3, 6-2 win over Hyeon Chung in the quarters. Chung could do little right on serve, winning just under half the points played (23/48). Ferrer was routinely pressuring the 21-year-old, crafting eight breaks chances. He would convert on five of those chances. Ferrer continued his “new” pattern of play which has been to be more aggressive with his ground strokes, instead of engaging in endless and lengthy rallies.
The Spaniard said he had no interest in seeing Chung chase down a bunch of balls as he did in upsetting John Isner in the previous round. More or less, Ferrer did not want to get Ferrer-ed. The 7th seed still has plenty of room to improve after winning just 59 percent of his first serve points against Chung. You can attribute some of that to Chung’s return game, but Ferrer was also at just 66 percent against Chinese teen Yibing Yu in his opener. He bludgeoned Joao Sousa in round two, but the inconsistency will need to be addressed if he has a real shot to beat Del Potro.
Del Potro Healthy, Playing Solid
For Juan Martin Del Potro, it’s a different feeling to be healthy and firing early in a season. it’s been a few years since he has been able to play this Australian swing and perhaps he’s making up for lost time. The 2009 Auckland champ came through a stiff test from Karen Khachanov last round 7-6 (3), 6-3. DelPo did not face a break point as he took 78 percent of the first serve points and 61 percent off his second. He was only able to get the one break off of the Russian on two chances, but it was perfect to help him control the second set. JMDP walloped eleven aces to give him 19 in two matches.
DelPo was perhaps a bit conservative tactically through the opening set against Khachanov as he matched up against the 21-year old for the first time. The Argentine admitted that he took more chances in the tie break, which obviously paid off. He even employed a series of drop shots that too the Russian’s legs. Despite his first serve not having quite the pop on it that he might want, Del Potro has been sharp in not conceding any break chances this week. He only won 69 percent of his first serve points against Denis Shapovalov in round one, but covered that by taking 13 of the 15 points played on his second serve.
First Meeting Since 2016
These two have played ten times at the tour level with Ferrer holding the 6-4 advantage. Their last meeting came in the third round of the 2016 U.S. Open, where Del Potro dismantled Ferrer 7-6 (3), 6-2, 6-3. JMDP was dominant with his serve, taking 81 percent of the first serve points. He was on Ferrer’s serve plenty as he saw a dozen break chances, converting on five. Ferrer would win just 63 percent of his first serve points. That win was Del Potro’s second straight over the Spaniard, also beating him at Wimbledon in 2013. Their other eight battles took place between 2008-2012. It’s a vastly different time for both now.
Del Potro has of course suffered through some agonizingly short seasons due to wrist injuries, while Ferrer has begun to show his age the last few years. Those two things have pushed both players to incorporate new tactics into their games. Del Potro had to adopt more of a one handed backhand approach to take some pressure off of his wrists and also to help him get to more forehands. The slice he uses off that backhand side has been a key to his surge over the last year. Ferrer as mentioned, has gone to a more aggressive style of play with shorter points. The one thing they do have in commmon – lengthy trips to the physio in between matches to keep their bodies primed for play.
I don’t think there is much mystery to this match-up. Ferrer’s serve is the sticking point. He simply does not have the raw power to match Del Potro blow for blow. Del Potro must be aggressive though in return to make the Spaniard pay for not hitting his spots. If the second seed does not strike the ball clean on return, then Ferrer has the ability to move and employ those aggressive tactics to finish off the points. Where Del Potro has struggled some is protecting the serves out wide, so I would be shocked if the 7th seed didn’t go there plenty in this one.
Del Potro needs to bring the bombs with his first serve. You can see it already this week, when that part of his game is on – he physically imposes his will on players. He pushes them back a few steps with his power and has the court position to his favor from that first ball. It also allows Del Potro to use the forehand consistently, which of course is his best shot. I think Ferrer will set up deep, but that’s still going to leave him scrambling if Del Potro is punishing the ball with that first serve.
While Ferrer doesn’t want to play those long rallies, he still will want to move Del Potro around the court. He can do that even in shorter exchanges by moving in and forcing Del Potro to do the same. DelPo has shown good movement still, but says he isn’t great at hitting balls low. That’s a fairly common tactic against taller players, to keep the ball out of their wheel house, and you can expect that Ferrer will try to exploit the angles and low trajectory of the ball to win points.
Both players will stick to the baseline as much as they are allowed and that shouldn’t deter Ferrer from taking that aggressive approach. Shapovalov employed it with some success again in round two by going for big shots from the baseline early in rallies. Ferrer will need to try some of that, but I’m not sure he’s got the power to consistently beat DelPo in that manner. Shapovalov generates a lot of pop with that whipping action on his forehand, whereas Ferrer’s just doesn’t have that same level.
It’s a different challenge for both players than what they have faced this week. Ferrer has not faced anyone with raw power like DelPo and the Argentine hasn’t faced a wiley veteran like Ferrer. I do think Del Potro needs to find early success with his serve to stave off Ferrer. He hasn’t been pushed much early in matches and that perhaps could be a turning point if Ferrer is to spring a surprise. Ferrer’s best chance I feel is to take that opening set and put pressure on Del Potro to respond.
The gut feeling though is that Ferrer’s faulty serve is not going to allow him to be in a command position early. If the Spaniard is too busy digging out of service games, that is going to leave him with a very small margin to turn the tables on Del Potro. My gut feeling is that is more likely than not. The only thing Del Potro needed to prove this week to be a factor in the business end of the tournament was that he wasn’t going to start flat. He hasn’t and I think he’ll have a shot to win his second title in Auckland by advancing to the final.
Pig’s Bottom Line: Del Potro wins in straight sets