After some time away due to personal commitments, the Serving Up Clutch team are back! A new podcast was released last Sunday, previewing the 4th Round and beyond of the second grand slam of the year, the French Open. Charlie’s accumulator of Davidovich Fokina to beat Delbonis (10/11), Zverev to beat Nishikori 3-0 or 3-1 (2/7) and Schwartzman to beat Struff (4/9) at a total of 2.55/1 ended up coming in! Luke however, went the other way in his accumulator, backing Struff at 7/4 and also Evans to beat Kokkinakis at 8/13 in the Nottingham Challenger event, with the Brit eventually coming through. With two intriguing semi-finals coming up, Luke offers his thoughts on both of the matches below.
Alex Zverev (2/1) vs Stefanos Tsitsipas (2/5)
H2H: Zverev 2-5 Tsitsipas, 0-1 on clay
A maiden French Open final appearance awaits against one of the big 3 for either Zverev or Tsitsipas, both of whom have had great clay seasons thus far. Zverev beat Nadal, Thiem and Berrettini on the way to the Madrid Masters title, and has 14 wins and 3 losses (to Goffin, Ivashka and Nadal) on clay in 2021. Despite having to come through a five setter in his first round against Otte (which is not unusual for Zverev early in slams), he hasn’t dropped a set since, beating Safiullin, Djere, Nishikori and Davidovich Fokina. Tsitsipas has been arguably more impressive, winning the Monte Carlo Masters without dropping a set, reaching the Barcelona ATP500 final (lost to Nadal in 3 sets) and winning the Lyon ATP250 title. His record on clay this year is 21 wins and 3 losses (to Nadal, Ruud and Djokovic). He has dropped just one set (to Isner) en route to the semis here, also beating Chardy, Martinez, Carreno-Busta and Medvedev.
Despite Tsitsipas dominating the head to head, Zverev won their only meeting this year, 6-4 7-6(3) in the Acapulco ATP500 final, on slow hard courts which, it could be argued, aren’t too dissimilar to clay courts. In that match, Tsitsipas utilised his drop shots followed by his excellent hand skills around the net to great effect early on, as Zverev begun the match too passive and standing too far behind the baseline during the rallies. Tsitsipas had points for 5-1 in that opening set, but Zverev ramped up the aggression and stood much closer to the baseline, recovering to take the set 6-4. This is where the key to the match lies really, if Zverev is too passive and allows Tsitsipas to dominate the rallies, then he won’t win. However, if he is aggressive and looks to dominate, particularly on that crosscourt backhand exchange, then he can trouble the Greek. Despite 29 wins in his career over top 10 players in ATP events, he is yet to record one in a grand slam. He does tend to play better against the bigger players, possibly a mental thing due to there being less pressure on him to win. This is a very tough match to call, as Tsitsipas has improved dramatically this year, particularly on the backhand side, which has shown in his great results. However, if Zverev plays the match on his terms and steps up inside the court, and plays aggressive tennis, he is very hard to beat, making him a good value pick at 2/1.
Rafael Nadal (4/11) vs Novak Djokovic (9/4)
H2H: Nadal 28-29 Djokovic, 17-7 on clay
It is always worth watching when two of the greatest ever face off, and this occasion should be no different. Nadal’s record of 13 titles and a 105/2 win/loss record truly is something to behold, and it is unlikely we will see dominance at one venue like it ever again in this sport. His clay season so far could be considered underwhelming by his extraordinary standards, despite titles in Barcelona and Rome and 19 wins and just two losses, to Rublev in Monte Carlo and Zverev in Madrid. There have however been other less than convincing performances, with sets dropped against Ivashka, Nishikori and Shapovalov. In the French Open, it has been largely plain sailing, despite having to fend off 2 set points in his opening match against Popyrin, and dropping a set to an inspired Schwartzman in the quarter finals. His other wins came against Gasquet, Norrie and Sinner, all in straight sets. Djokovic had a very uncharacteristic start to his clay season, with a straight sets loss to Evans in Monte Carlo, followed by a loss to Karatsev in his home event in Belgrade. He chose to miss Madrid, and returned to some form in Rome, beating Tsitsipas on the way to the final, where he lost to Nadal despite winning the second set 6-1. He then won the second instalment of his home event in Belgrade, but without facing a top 90 opponent. In the French Open, he saw off Sandgren, Cuevas and Berankis in straight sets, but was given a real scare by Musetti in Round 4. The Italian went two sets up before Djokovic came back as he has done so often before, but partly thanks to an injury for Musetti. Another Italian in the form of Berrettini made Djokovic work in the quarter finals, taking the third set but eventually losing out in 4 sets to a very pumped Djokovic. There is no doubt he will be pumped for his next match against Nadal.
Djokovic will need to be more than pumped to beat Nadal here however. Nadal has lost just twice at Roland Garros in his entire career, once to the Serb when he was not fully fit, and the other time famously to Soderling in 2009 who played the match of his life, hitting huge groundstrokes and simply overpowering Nadal. Something in common between players who have troubled Nadal in recent years (particularly on clay) is an aggressive gamestyle with a very strong backhand. Fognini, Thiem, and Zverev to a lesser extent fall into this category. Fortunately for Djokovic, he also has a very strong backhand, which is partly how he has managed to beat Nadal 7 times on clay. This helps to nullify the left handed forehand crosscourt, which is so effective at dragging Nadal’s opponents out of the court, putting them under pressure and giving him the upper hand in the rally. That being said, there are so many other areas of Nadal’s game that make him unplayable to most players on clay: his incredible movement and retrieving ability, his physical and mental fitness, his consistency from the back of the court and his touch and feel around the net. In their last meeting at Roland Garros, Nadal won comfortably 6-0 6-2 7-5 in an extraordinary match. The Spaniard barely missed a ball in 3 sets, making just 14 unforced errors, compared to Djokovic’s 52. However, this was in October, in much colder conditions, making it very difficult for Djokovic to hit through Nadal. These warmer conditions make it possible to hit through Nadal, but still not at all easy. They also suit Nadal in that his forehand can get very high with the amount of top spin he puts on the ball, which is difficult to deal with particularly on the backhand side. In the eight times they have met at Roland Garros, apart from the time Nadal was not fit, the Spaniard has won, 4 of those being in straight sets (including a retirement win), two of those being in four sets and just one going the distance. Despite Djokovic’s ability, it was very difficult for me to see anyone beating Nadal this fortnight, and I haven’t seen anything since the start of the tournament that has made me think otherwise. For Djokovic to beat Nadal over best of 5 sets, he would have to play to the peak of his abilities and Nadal would have to put in a sub-par performance. I expect Nadal to get the job done here, and go on to level the head to head at 29-29 between these two all-time greats.
Double: Zverev and Nadal – 3.09/1