RG 2017: QF Wrap and SF Preview

Djokovic

Hopefully you read my reaction to Thiem crushing Djokovic’s dream of a return to the kind of championship tennis we saw from Novak back in 2016. To be clear, not that any of you are not aware of my general concern for all things men’s tennis, this slump/collapse/decline of Novak is fairly troubling. Though I am not a big GOAT guy (although I am more than happy to chime-in), I do look at the top of the tour in that

djokovic-madrid-2017-player-party

2017 Djokovic. . .

grand historical context. What has happened to Novak, such as losing control of his reign mid-year 2016, losing the USO final, the WTF and his #1 ranking at that point was practically careless. Big picture tennis says you have to close the deal on 2016 there, at least win the WTF and maintain #1. If that wasn’t bad enough, the slide has continued (gotten worse) in 2017: the tennis, the health of his tennis family, etc. What a disaster.

This, as I have been arguing throughout, affects massively his prized tennis legacy. Hearing his fans come forward with all of these claims of most rigged draws, best results overall on all surfaces, etc., is too little, too late (and too lame). If he doesn’t lose his way in 2016 and continue that decline in 2017, he’s in an entirely different place.

We have wanted to give Novak the benefit of the doubt, suggesting he would have enough perhaps to get by Thiem in Bo5, for instance, rely at the very least on your fight to survive and advance in that great Djoker fashion. But he’s, clearly, in so such place.

The slide continues and no one knows what will happen to this tennis great moving forward. No one. He is searching, wandering almost aimlessly it seems.

His tank of the third set was startling and definitive of this lost cause that is Novak Djokovic. Agassi gave him a bump in form, motivation, but to battle deep into these draws and withstand the kind of competitive savagery that is a Stanimal, Nadal or Thiem, not to mention a Kyrgios or a Federer this summerer (ha!), Djokovic needs stability and confidence. Where in the hell did that go?

We have discussed these slumps that are characteristic of Novak’s career. He won his first major in 2008 and the next one in 2011. Following the 2011 masterpiece, he struggled to get to 2015-16. So this is not necessarily an unprecedented drop in form from the Serb; but, at the same time, this is different.

Glance about the court during that QF with Thiem. Djokovic’s box is barren, but for his seemingly perpetually disgruntled parents, the well-behaved younger brother, the sinister wife (sorry, calling it like I see it) and the odd, creepy or dopey (depending upon your view) character that is Pepe, a caricature of some kind of new age spiritual leader, meaning Djokovic is on some kind of spiritual pilgrimage?

Move your eyes to the court and there you have Novak gifting the match to Thiem once he’s fully realized that his dream is crushed, which is probably a good move here in the QF with Rafa and Stanimal (maybe Andy) waiting in two future octagons.

This is sad, folks. I’d welcome the task of resurrecting Djokovic: firing his parents, the wife and her pet Pepe, and putting together a solid coaching and support staff (that he probably shouldn’t have fired in the first place).

Unfortunately, I’m not in that position. Good luck, Novak. Watching you tank the match like that was pretty piss poor. The last impressions I have of the Serb are informed by those two images above.

Semi-finals

Did you see the Wawrinka v Cilic QF? I thought Marin might put forth a bit of a fight, despite the brutal H2H with Stan and the Man’s recent run here at RG. But this was a man playing a child. Everything about this had mismatch written all over it.

Stan’s huge serve (closing-out the first set with a booming ace, for instance) and FH right now are the bread and butter of his dominance and always have been. The problem for his opponents, especially those unlucky to play him in a major final, concerns his adding the BH (blooping and assaulting CC and unplayable DTL) to this hearty fare of bread and butter. Stan keeps things pretty simple and it’s a devastating brand of tennis.

But again: when he’s got both wings going, hitting lines and serving well, he is a mature, potentially angry and punitive sort of opponent.

Nice to see Andy get through the beatable Nishikori; dropping the first set and coming back to win definitively has to bode well for the Scottish no. 1 seed.

So who do we have here? At this end of the draw, we’re in near coin-flip mode. Never the less, Stan just seems so stable and destructive right now. He hasn’t had to work very hard in these wins, meaning he hasn’t dropped a set. However, this is a guy who’s pretty comfortable going 5. He’s fit, which has generally been the case under Norman, who was always one of the fitter guys on tour.

The ball striking seems so pure and powerful – and he wants to avenge last year’s SF loss to Andy. We’ve come to know this version of Stan and believe he’s probably the one to advance from that top half of the draw.

The only qualification would be Andy’s most brilliant defensive tennis showing-up to go along with some flatter ground-strokes that can hurt Stan. If Murray is going to sit back there and lob short balls at the Swiss, he’ll get pummeled. But if Murray can play backboarFrench-Open-2017-results-Andy-Murray-Stan-Wawrinka-813140d and frustrate with some deft use of the drop, effective serve, etc., who knows. I think we’d have to see, in other words, a bit of a drop from Stan. I feel like I’m wasting words here a bit. Wawrinka looks finals-bound.

Think about how this tournament has unfolded:

SF #1 Murray v Wawrinka. (1 vs 3)

SF #2 Nadal v Thiem. (4 vs 6)

All four of these players call clay home (Murray’s welcome mat is only somewhat newer). This is the most ideal final four we could think of, perhaps with Goffin replacing Thiem for those fans of the Belgian out there. But Thiem’s rise has been more dramatic, as he’s younger, has a fantastic style (old school, brash), a tremendously gifted game, especially for this surface. Murray has risen to defend his ranking, finally. Wawrinka finally shows us the goods, which usually does occur when the stakes are highest.

And in this year’s version of the French Open, we get what has to amount to the glorious swan song of Rafa, at his favorite venue, coming at the close of a throw-back and amazing clay court season. Seems like old times, right?

Ladies and gentlemen, this is called — as I would hope you know by now — 2017 Fedal.

Rafa’s run has been obscene. The scorelines are scary. We know this. He’s marching toward La Decima. We know this, as well.

What we do not know is how this SF vs. Thiem is going to play-out. Lets’s cut to the chase.

Nadal is favored and should be. His magic around this court, his experience and incredible mastery of the competitive landscape is legendary. In other words, for all the brilliance and youth that Dominic will bring to this battle, Nadal will probably find a way.

He will need to use the entire court, which is fine since he’s become one of the better all-court players, to be fair. He will need to come to net, actually, vs. Thiem. These will be Dominic-Thiemopportunistic attacks. Watch how this plays-out. Djokovic was dead in the water sitting back there trying to predict and counter the Austrian’s big artillery. Nadal will move.  I am almost certain of this. He has to come to net, keep Dominic off-balance and finish points earlier. Federer will find much pleasure in watching his friendly rival battle this young clay master, using this more mature style. This has been part of my criticism of the Serb: his game, wait for it, is limited. Tough to age in this sport sitting back and retrieving all day.

On the other hand, the Austrian has a bit going for him. He has now, attribution here goes to one of the TV commentators, scalped all 4 of the big 4. He fears no one. He beat the Spanish King in Rome a few weeks ago, in straight sets. This came from a series of matches with Nadal in which he made small adjustments that enabled him to close the gap and finally break-through.

You have seen my take on his use of the DTL. This is CRITICAL to Thiem’s outcome. If he can successfully employ this variety in his monstrous baseline attack, Rafa is in for a long and bumpy ride.

What is the most devastating aspects of Stan’s one-hander? DTL. Roger’s? DTL. The CC shot is obviously effective. But Thiem has to mix-in the DTL, which only finishes most points since he’s probably pushed his opponent off the court wide on the deuce side (speaking of his BH DTL). This is true of his FH DTL. CC is great, and necessary, but he has to use the DTL to wear-out Nadal. Keep your eye on this dynamic.

I don’t have the stats in front of me here, but Thiem is hitting the ball and spinning the ball harder than anyone else at this point, even Rafa.

To summarize, Rafa needs to employ the variety of a more full-court game-plan. Dominic needs to employ the variety of his groNadalGettyImages-692153554_1920x1080_959987267790und-strokes DTL.

Sure there are many many more factors. The serve will be critical. The ROS could be a deciding factor, especially if Rafa can get into Dom’s service confidence. A break of serve here and there could decide this.

And of course many of you are probably saying Rafa will just pound Thiem’s one-hander. Could be. But they’ve played recently. Adjustments have been made. Still, that will be something to watch.

Lastly, although this has been implied throughout this post, the mental framework of this match between Nadal and Thiem will be interesting. Thiem caught a break in the QF because Djokovic is broken and the Serb quit in that match (this is quite disturbing for many out there – that he would tank like that); Nadal will not resort to such a thing. No way. The Spaniard will be a nightmare, mentally, I suspect.

Can Thiem keep maturing before our very eyes? For instance, he has to pick the right times to hit DTL. Not when he’s getting pushed back and trying to stay in the point. He has to be smart in how he employs this variety and his approach in general.

The mental strength of these players, all four, will be on display in these next two matches.

Obviously, there is so much more to consider, but I’ll leave it there for now. Let me know what you think of the matches. I’m afraid to say that my gut tends to side with the tennis great here, so I see Nadal surviving . . . and playing Stan in the final. Holy shit that could be good.

Then again, we have a phenomenal final four (Thiem could be defining his rise to that stature this weekend). The tennis stoke is strong with these four, and with this tournament, which I hope you’re feeling with the help of Mcshow Tennis.

Let’s get it on!

6 comments

  1. Nicely written Matt. I may be one of the few who isn’t particularly surprised by Novak’s tank job, it’s sort of part of his curriculum vitae, lest we forget the numerous times he had “issues” on court and had to call it quits. I am not saying those weren’t real issues and a gluten free diet certainly may have made a superman out of him…. 😉

    I think we should stop focusing on the Serb for the time being, let his fangirls damage control and make fools of themselves while this blog highlights the one single truth that there is no need to lament a tennis great, for they have achieved almost everything there is to achieve in the sport, we can honour them by remembering them when they were at their best and not at their worst, which is why I love it when you use historic facts when analysing the current trends in the men’s game, this broad perspective should always come first.

    As for my prediction, I think the tennis gods are pulling my leg, but my gut feeling tells me this is destined to be.
    The young Austrian may well rise here, vanquishing three Roland Garros champions (one of them the undisputed king of clay) in a row to capture his first GS title. Wawrinka is going to school Murray tomorrow. The old king will give everything he has against Thiem, yet the Austrian will have an answer to everything the old king throws at him.

    Nadal’s deficit in overall fitness, power and speed will give Thiem the definitive edge, Nadal cannot overpower him, the Austrian’s groundstrokes are insane and as you highlight the DTL backhand is lethal when it works. As for hopeful all-court approach by Nadal I just can’t see it happening. He is our favourite Neanderthal after all, but sadly this also means that he carries very little tactical finesse, which has been evident numerous times throughout his career. He cannot adjust his tactics on the go and I beliem that Thiem has figured him out.

    Nadal is no Federer or prime Djokovic in that regard and what he lacks there he compensated with his unmatched physicality and situational awareness which meant he could produce winners from ridiculous defensive positions/angles, but those qualities are partially gone too. Watch him tomorrow try to force Thiem’s backhand and at the first short return the Spaniard produces Thiem will start hitting him out of the court.

    Fingers crossed for two competitive semi-finals!

    1. Definitely see the resignation in your comment here, but I think Nadal has more of a chance than that.
      When I say he will go “all-court,” I don’t mean S&V, per se, but he, like Thiem, will look to come and finish at the net.
      This was an adjustment that many said Thiem needed to make: you bury a guy in the corner with one of your right crosses,
      as your opponent scrambles to recover, you need to be at the net to finish. Otherwise, missed opportunity.
      So, not S&V, but I just think Nadal will be clever and his net play always has been under-rated.

      I’m hoping for the King to rise, along with his revolutionary apprentice. I have been so critical of Nadal (and still am to a certain point).
      But his competitive will is a thing of historical beauty. 2017 Fedal has only made their careers that much more incredible – a literal farewell, more or less.

      A Nadal v Wawrinka would have so much heavy-weight character, I can’t but pull for that match-up.
      But indeed, I beliem in Thiem, as well.

      Here’s to a grand classic between Nadal and Thiem.
      I suspect Wawrinka will have is way in the other match, as do you.

      And thanks for the feedback on Djokollapse.
      We do have a ton to discuss and appreciate beyond the Circusovic.

      It’ll be a 2:00am call for me tonight to see this live, which I always prefer, vs. tape delay.
      Hope we’re rewarded!

  2. This blog remains always on top of the ATP tour watching further than anyone else, hence Matt’s exceptional foresight. Well, a certain “unstable” emperor helps too, with a few prophecies which are usually quite entertaining as well (keep them coming Caligula!).

    As expected Djokovic’s fall from grace continues (reminded me a bit of Tomic’s mentality: “I don’t want to rally with Dominic Thiem”) and what saddens me the most is that I can’t see an end to it, at present. If he continues in his previous fashion, regroups mentally and arises again in about three years, it will be too late, I’m afraid; new gen will have surpassed him and he won’t be able to retrieve as well in his 32-33 birthday. Adding new options in his game is always possible, but not as probable as other great players: he always was a kind of baseline specialist as he doesn’t have great touch/serve/power shots/all court coverage/attacking options and I’m not sure he has enough time to develop these. Grass and faster hard courts will probably accentuate that problem and the needed slams to catch the Maestro or the Bull will be postponed to 2018. The Agassi effect didn’t last long and he needs much more of that medicine; I guess Becker was honest when he walked away saying he thought tennis was not his player’s top priority anymore. Losing no 2 ranking (first time since 2011) may be just the top of the iceberg; at this rate his participation in WTF is in doubt.

    I agree with your predictions: Stan vs Rafa will be a great final. Murray hasn’t faced a quality opponent as of yet and his current gameplay mainly undermines his opponents game:that wont cut it against Wawrinka who can impose his game with his power. Thiem hits the ball with the most power and spin at the moment and has pretty much all the needed armory to hurt Nadal but is he mentally up to the task? I guess if he losses it will be more due to the mental warfare than his all-court weakness next to a more complete opponent because the longer he keeps up with the Bull (say after grabbing a set each), the more the bull will feel cornered and get a few nerves after so many easy rounds: it’s probably one of the last opportunities for the Decima for Rafa. I wouldn’t advise Nadal to exploit his opponents’ one handed backhand repeatedly:the youngster (and the rest of the tennis world) knows that old strategy and will expect it to punish those shots (Djokovic’s similar efforts mostly ended in loss of the point even in the first set). DTL OHBH are devastating shots mostly because of the limited time the opponent has to respond due to shorter distance and earlier hitting of the ball and Dominic should be ready to use them to have a chance.

    I think I need to explain a bit of my earlier commentary (wilfried grasped most of the meaning of it but let’s be clear). Clay has mainly three peculiarities : the movement (stamina+slide technique needed), the bounce (unstable -hard to take the ball early- and high, so hard topspin shots are preferred as more secure than flat shots which can be returned, slice shots don’t stay that low losing that advantage) and the speed (the slowest of surfaces-more time to the defender). Although a certain degree of “acclimatization” is undoubtedly needed, my point is that physical attributes are far more useful than e.x. touch that can help you produce a drop-shot or two. So a mobile defender with power/heavy shots is the ideal player, followed by good defenders (in general) or a strong attacker; all of the above should have the patience to wait for an opening. Leaving Fedal out of the equation for obvious reasons (and boys championship also, due to the athleticism and physical built currently needed not available to a young age), Djokovic and Agassi are great defenders, Soderling and Wawrinka are power players (their defense on other surfaces is questionable, as they miss the mobility). Since the sport became more athletic, these type of players mostly prevail. Our current semifinalists are an excellent specimen: four pretty strong players, most of them very agile and adept to defense (Stan a bit less) and with spinning/heavy shots (Stan maybe with the heaviest of all).

    1. We’re both exploring/hypothesizing and agreeing as much as disagreeing. The classic clay, in the end, is the mobile scrambler who has grown-up with clay. Look at the winners prior to Rafa. Many times they were “clay specialists,” we called them. Games did not transfer much to other surfaces.

      Rafa is the classic Euro scrambler (specialist) but he has destroyed the mold as he has all of those attributes x1000 (physical strength, stamina, speed, retrieving skils aka digger/scrambler extraordinaire).

      Guga fit this mold, Agassi does, too (which is odd why he only won once). Novak has been unlucky as well. These are all good defender types who have good mobility, etc.

      Thiem is a great clay guy but he’s more like Federer in his approach (remember, some argue that Federer is the second best clay courter of all-time). Thiem and Stan are more of that offensive model, and you could really see the flaw in that approach today).

      Stan is a total enigma. More on that final match-up in my next post.

      Thanks for all of your keen insight, blackspy. Keep it coming.

  3. Wow, I expected Rafa to Win but kind of disappointing to see Thiem losing it this way. Stan should have easily get the job done in 4, but not surprise it went distance….

    Looks like we got what we wanted, what do you guys think about Final. Going by history Rafa is definitely fav. I guess, Stan has to be very top to have chance….Hopefully we get a great final…

    1. Yeah, Rafa looks in the zone, but Thiem was in a bit over his head, too, perhaps. Tough for a youngster like that to get through a draw like this, on this surface.

      Some of the points early in the match illustrated why clay is so specific and Nadal is such a nightmare.

      I’ll write a little preview later. My initial reaction to SF post is up, however.

What say you?