French Open: Semifinal previews

French Open: Semifinal previews

Morning all, and welcome to Friday. TGI and all that. Its October and that means the start of the really weird weather in Mexico City. The rainy season seems to be over and there has barely been a cloud in the sky for a couple of weeks. But while the temperature soars to a balmy 25 degrees in the sun, it plummets to below 10 in the mornings, evenings or simply if you are in the shade. This means that I have taken my jumper on and off about 12 times so far today in a desperate attempt to get comfortable. As yet, I have been unsuccessful. But I have a beer in my hand so all is not lost.

As we head into a weekend of international football, my mind has turned – as it always does – onto other sports. Outside of the World Cup and the Euros, international football interests me about as much as the family of mosquitoes currently inhabiting my bathroom: I would rather it wasn’t there and I pretend it doesn’t exist.

Thankfully, however, there is always tennis to keep me occupied and the French Open at Roland Garros is gearing up for what looks like being a blockbuster finals weekend. American Sofia Kenin – she who cries all the time – is the heavy favourite to win the women’s title as she takes on unseeded teenager Iga Swiatek from Poland. That said, Swiatek did beat Kenin in the junior tournament in Paris four years ago, so it might not be all plain sailing for the fourth seed.

On the men’s side, there are a couple of fascinating semifinal matches scheduled today. In the first, 12-time champion Rafael Nadal takes on Argentine Diego Schwartzman, before top seed Novak Djokovic takes to the court against Stefanos Tsitsipas. With both matches so finely poised, I thought it would be interesting to think about some of the factors that could prove decisive in determining the outcome. So lets get into it.

Nadal (2) vs Schwartzman (12)

At first sight, everything would seem to point to a comfortable victory for Nadal. The numbers are overwhelmingly in his favour. The Spaniard will be competing in his 35th Grand Slam final and 13th at Roland Garros. Schwartzman, meanwhile, is preparing for his debut in the last four of a major. Nadal has won 59 clay-court titles compared to the Argentine’s two. Since 2005, Nadal has finished every year inside the world’s top 10. Schwartzman’s career high ranking is 11. The Mallorcan leads the pair’s head-to-head 9-1, including seven straight-sets victories.

That, however, does not tell the whole story. At 28-years-old, Schwartzman is enjoying the best form of his career and is on a clear upward trajectory. The man from Buenos Aires, who stands at just 5″7, reached his first Masters 1000 final on the Roman clay last month, claiming a stunning win over Nadal in the semifinals. If that wasn’t the biggest win of his career, then Wednesday’s quarterfinal victory over Dominic Thiem certainly was. The Austrian, fresh from his US Open victory, was many commentators’ favourite to win the title in Paris after coming up short in the finals of 2018 and 2019. But he was worn down and eventually outplayed by the consistent groundstrokes, dynamic movement and brilliant return game of Schwartzman. The power of confidence should not be underestimated, and right now the Argentine has it in abundance.

Nadal, on the hand, might be lacking in that area. The 19-time Grand Slam champion has not reached a tour-level final in over a year since he beat Daniil Medvedev to win the Cincinnati Masters last August. For someone so used to winning and competing for tournament victories every week, that is a drought. Add to that his recent defeat at the hands of the diminutive Argentine, which will fresh in his mind, and Nadal might well be more nervous than usual.

Overall, though, the question of fitness might just swing this one in Nadal’s favour. Schwartzman’s win over Thiem was a brutal, bruising contest that lasted over five hours. Nadal, meanwhile, cruised through his quarterfinal against Jannik Sinner in straight sets. If Schwartzman comes out firing and takes the first set, he could have a chance. However if the match drags into a third and fourth hour, I expect fresh and experienced Nadal to emerge victorious.

Djokovic (1) vs Tsitsipas (5)

For me, this is the pick of the semifinals. Much like Nadal, Djokovic also comfortably trumps his opponent when it comes to experience. The Serb has won 929 tour-level matches compared to Tsitsipas’ 126 – that pretty much says all you need to know about the relative pedigree of the two players.

But Tsitsipas is a fascinating competitor who, at just 22-years-old, has already made a huge mark in the game. In 2018, he beat Djokovic on the way to reaching the Canada Masters final, a feat he repeated in Madrid last year. His biggest title to date, however, came in London last year when he beat Roger Federer, Thiem and an in-form Daniil Medvedev to win the ATP Tour Finals. He has since become a fixture in the top-10 and although he struggles with inconsistency, he looked calm and composed in the quarterfinals as he comfortably dispatched 13th seed Andrey Rublev in straight sets. When he is on top form, his attacking game is difficult to stop. He serves well, takes the ball early and rushes forward at every opportunity to finish points with his excellent volleys.

Djokovic’s form going into this one is also interesting. Yes, he is on an amazing run and has not lost a match (when he hasn’t smashed a line judge in the face with a ball) since last year. However, with a relatively modest 80% win record over his career and just the one Roland Garros title to his name, clay is comfortably his weakest surface. He seems to struggle slightly with the high bounce, particularly on the return. Although he won the Rome title last month and has reached the semifinals in Paris, he is yet to face a top-10 player in either of those runs. There might also be some physical issues after needing treatment on his shoulder during his quarterfinal win over Pablo Carreno Busta.

I know he’s by no means the favourite, but I suspect Tsitsipas might just win this one. He has been getting better with each match this week and he seems to have that star quality of being able to produce his best tennis on the biggest stage. By contrast Djokovic has looked out of sorts, angry and frustrated so far. Let’s be honest, the Serb is also due a loss, and it would be great to see a young star like Tsitsipas make his major final debut.

Right, I think I’ll leave it there for today. I am planning to brave the arctic morning conditions to have a game of tennis myself this morning, but hopefully I’ll be back to see most of what should be a fascinating day at Roland Garros. I’ll be back here with more for y’all on Monday.