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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, September 5, 2019

 
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Rafael Nadal is an overwhelming favorite to capture his fourth US Open crown, so who's most likely to stop him? We make the case for all four semifinalists here.

Photo credit: US Open Facebook

NEW YORK—The Big 3 has waned to one sole Slam survivor.

Second-seeded Rafael Nadal is two wins from claiming his fourth US Open championship—and climbing one rung closer to the top of the Grand Slam ladder.

Federer: Missed Opportunity

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic succumbed to Stan Wawrinka, a cranky left shoulder and the proverbial cold shoulder from some annoyed Arthur Ashe Stadium fans.

A resurgent Grigor Dimitrov snapped a seven-match winless slide against Roger Federer stunning the third-seeded Swiss in a rousing quarterfinal and spoiling the prospect of the first-ever Roger vs. Rafa Flushing Meadows showdown.

Now, Nadal stands on the game's largest Grand Slam stage as an overwhelming favorite to capture his 19th career Grand Slam title and move to within one of matching 20-time Grand Slam champion Federer's all-time mark.

First-time major semifinalist Matteo Berrettini will try to stall Nadal's march toward history, while Dimitrov plays for his first hard-court victory against 2019 ATP wins leader Daniil Medvedev.

Here's our preview and predictions for tomorrow's US Open semifinals.

No. 24 Matteo Berrettini (ITA) vs. No. 2 Rafael Nadal (ESP)

Head-to-Head: First meeting

2019 Record: Berrettini 34-15 (10-9 on hard courts); Nadal 45-6 (19-2 on hard courts)

Best US Open Result: Berrettini 2019 semifinals; Nadal three-time champion (2010, 2013 and 2017)

Career Grand Slam Record: Berrettini 12-7; Nadal 269-38

Career Five-Set Record: Berrettini 3-0; Nadal 21-12

Matteo Berrettini on Rafael Nadal: “I think he's the greatest fighter ever in this sport. It's unbelievable he's doing. I admire him, like, the way he's on the court. His attitude is something that I think it's close to the perfection. He's always, like, 5-0, 40-Love down, he's always there. It's something that's not that easy to do. So bravo.”

Rafael Nadal on Matteo Berrettini: “Berrettini is having a great year. He's in semifinals winning a lot of good matches, so what you can expect in a semifinals of a Grand Slam match. You can't expect an easy opponent. You can't expect an easy match... He's serving huge, big forehands, moving well, and big confidence because he's having a great year. So let's see. I need to play my best.”

Why Berrettini Will Win

Blast Off

On hard court, Berrettini is at his best playing first-strike tennis. The 6’5” Italian can routinely rock 130 mph first serves—his 138 mph blast tied for fourth fastest of the tournament—and if he’s landing his first torrid first serve he can finish with his flame-thrower forehand.

After a punishing five-set, four-hour quarterfinal triumph over Gael Monfils, Berrettini knows he must keep points short against the ultra-athletic Nadal. Look for Berrettini, who cites Nadal and Roger Federer as his tennis heroes, to try command the center of the court with his forehand the way Juan Martin del Potro did when he made history as the first man to beat Nadal and Federer in succession at a Grand Slam in capturing the 2009 US Open championship.



Breaker Buster

Berrettini will be empowered by out-dueling Gael Monfils in a gripping quarterfinal decided in a fifth-set tie break. After squandering match point, Berrettini kept calm in the breaker raising his US Open tie break record to 4-1. His willingness to assert his aggression will benefit Berrettini should he drag Nadal into tie break sets.

Brave Breakthrough

The first Italian man to reach the US Open semifinals since Corrado Barazzutti on Forest Hills’ clay in 1977, Berrettini knows he didn’t come this far playing grinding rallies. The Rome resident has been bold stepping up and rapping his forehand with vicious intent.

The youngest US Open semifinalist since Novak Djokovic in 2010 must be willing to let it fly on serve and forehand, manage his backhand against Nadal’s topspin assault and take his cracks when they come. The fact Berrettini went the distance against Monfils, one of the quickest men in the sport, should help prepare him for Nadal who will frequently force the Italian to play one more ball.

Why Nadal Will Win

Punishing Pattern

Grand Slam semifinals can be complex—Nadal owns a simple winning pattern in this match up. The Spaniard’s twisting topspin forehand to Berrettini’s weaker backhand wing will decide this match. If Nadal is thumping his topspin crosscourt with the authority he’s shown throughout this fortnight, he will batter Berrettini’s backhand into submission and win this match. For a set-and-a-half Monfils was doing exactly that, then the Frenchman lost control of his serve, committing 17 double faults, and began pushing rather than snapping his two-handed backhand crosscourt. Look for Nadal to test the Berrettini backhand from the first ball.

Experience Edge

Contesting his eighth US Open semifinal, Nadal is playing for his fifth US Open final in his last eight Flushing Meadows appearances. In contrast, Berrettini did not own a Grand Slam hard-court win prior to arriving in New York. The three-time US Open champion should enjoy massive crowd support, he has plenty of room to roam on the world’s biggest Grand Slam stage and though Berrettini is a big serve with 66 aces in the tournament to date, Nadal leads the ATP in return games won this season (38.73%) and has broken serve 23 times in the four matches he’s played—Nadal received a second-round walkover from Thanasi Kokkinakis.

Major March

The 18-time Grand Slam champion is the only major winner still standing and Nadal will not be denied his march toward major history. If Nadal wins this US Open, he’d close the gap on 20-time major champion Roger Federer’s record to just one Slam title. Nine years ago, Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic in the 2010 US Open final to become the third youngest man in history to complete the career Grand Slam. Now, Nadal is primed to collect his fourth US Open crown. Nadal will have fresher legs based on his second-round walkover and the fact he’s facing a first-time major semifinalist who figures to be depleted after an emotional four-hour quarterfinal victory.



Prediction

We’ve seen big hitters ranging from Robin Soderling to Juan Marin del Potro to Nick Kyrgios knock Nadal out of Grand Slam tournaments before. Playing his best tennis, Berrettini possesses the proverbial puncher’s chance, particularly if he can get to the tie break where he’s excelled in this tournament. However, look for Nadal to drop back to lines crew territory, put plenty of returns back in play, work the big man’s legs, which will be drained from his four-hour battle, and beat Berrettini’s backhand into submission and roll into the final.

The Pick: Rafael Nadal defeats Matteo Berrettini in three sets

No. 5 Daniil Medvedev (RUS) vs. Grigor Dimitrov (BUL)

Head-to-Head: 1-1

2019 Record: Medvedev 49-16 (36-8 on hard courts); Dimitrov 16-15 (11-7 on hard courts)

Best US Open Result: Medvedev 2019 semifinals; Dimitrov 2019 semifinals

Career Grand Slam Record: Medvedev 16-11; Dimitrov 59-36

Career Five-Set Record: Medvedev 0-4; Dimitrov 10-7

Daniil Medvedev on Grigor Dimitrov: “Really happy for Grigor, that he's coming back to his shape maybe. I think he's 78 in the rankings right now before this week, so he's definitely going to go up. I saw some matches of him here. He was playing unbelievable, I think… He was playing unbelievable this week. We all know what he's capable of when he's playing like he can.”

Grigor Dimitrov on Daniil Medvedev: “He's been having a great summer, a lot of confidence building up, winning Cincinnati, being already here. A lot of good matches, a lot behind him really… Clearly he's doing something right. Again, it's not going to be an easy match.”

Why Medvedev Will Win

Backhand Beast

Medvedev’s brilliant backhand battering ram can be the key stroke here. The Russian’s flat two-hander is one of the best in the game and he controls it shrewdly. Like Jimmy Connors, Nikolay Davydenko and Monica Seles, Medvedev can create sharp angles off the flat backhand crosscourt or crank it down the line as a point finisher. If Medvedev can keep the ball deep and drag Dimitrov into crosscourt backhand rallies he can draw short balls from Dimitrov’s one-hander and force the Bulgarian into defensive positions on the backhand side.



Roll Player

The Russian is on a red-hot roll and won’t be stopped here. Medvedev has won an ATP-best 49 matches this season, including a 19-2 record with three finals and the Cincinnati championship since July 30th. Success breeds success: Medvedev has won more matches the last five weeks than Dimitrov has all season.

Confidence is a key component to reaching Grand Slam finals and Medvedev is so confident right now he’s even sarcastically trash-talked the notoriously tough New York crowd—and later back-tracked a bit saying “I was an idiot”—and is still going strong. Medvedev has solved all problems and beaten three Grand Slam champions—Marin Cilic in Washington, D.C., world No. 1 Novak Djokovic en route to the Cincinnati title and Stan Wawrinka in the US Open quarterfinals—during the last month. Confidence is currency and Medvedev will have more to spend in this semifinal.

Statement Serve

The 6’6” Medvedev has smacked 78 aces—second most behind John Isner’s 91—and he’s also broken serve 28 times during this Flushing Meadows fortnight. In his Cincinnati stunner over Djokovic, Medvedev hammered his second serve with menacing intent. Despite 12 double faults in his four-set quarterfinal conquest of Stan Wawrinka, Medvedev’s serve has been a weapon throughout his summer hard-court surge.

Why Dimitrov Will Win

All-Court Acumen

At No. 78, Dimitrov is the lowest-ranked US Open men’s semifinalist since a 174th-ranked Jimmy Connors made his magical 1991 run to the final four. Don’t let the pedestrian ranking fool you, just two years ago Dimitrov was riding high winning his biggest career title at the ATP Finals and rising to a career-high rank of No. 3. The three primary advantages Dimitrov holds here: explosive athleticism, superior all-court skills and his quickness around the court. The question is: Can Dimitrov use his speed and athleticism proactively to create offense rather than reactively responding to Medvedev’s flat blasts.

Running Rallies

If the dynamic Dimitrov can create running rallies, displace Medvedev from the center of the court and use his superior variation to make the bigger man dig varied replies out of the corners, he can win. If Dimitrov allows Medvedev to control the center of the court and direct traffic with his flat drives, he will lose. Look for Dimitrov to use the chip backhand return and the angled slice backhand to pull Medvedev off the baseline up te service line where he’s not nearly as comfortable. Dimitrov hit some exceptional running drives vs. Federer nearly running into the photo pit chasing down one backhand and roping several sprinting forehands. Medvedev owns a tremendous two-hander down the line so Dimitrov must hit his running forehand with ambition and accuracy.

Power Of One

For years, the knock on Dimitrov was he had all the shots but lacked the judgement applying them. Ongoing shoulder issues and the fact he staggered into New York having lost seven of his prior eight matches made Dimitrov a long shot at the start of this tournament. Though he says he’s held nightly phone strategy sessions with coaches Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek, the fact is neither Agassi nor Stepanek has been in New York and Dimitrov has responded with the best US Open run of his life. Perhaps that’s exactly what Dimitrov needed: To figure it out for himself.

Yes, the Bulgarian’s shoulder issues combined with a service toss can stray too far to his left can make his second serve shaky at times. In fact, Dimitrov twice double-faulted away breaks to Roger Federer in his stunning quarterfinal upset of the five-time champion. But Dimitrov is winning 59 percent of his second-serve points in the tournament—most of any of the four semifinalists. If Dimitrov can manage his nerve and second serve and let his shots fly with ambition he can break through to his first Grand Slam final.



Prediction

Given Medvedev’s mastery of hard courts during this North American summer season, that he permitted just six games sweeping Dimitrov in their lone hard-court clash at the 2017 Citi Open, and the fact his flat strokes and quirky point construction that can be maddening, you have to favor the Cincinnati champion to advance here.

And I won’t argue with you for doing so.

Still, Dimitrov is a shot-maker and crowd-pleasing player who can leverage the support of Arthur Ashe Stadium fans against the man who’s cultivated his role as tournament villain. It’s a tough call because this is the biggest match of both of their lives and we just can’t accurately anticipate how maiden US Open semifinalists will manage their nerves. Dimitrov must make this match about movement, athleticism and variety.

If he does, the 28-year-old Bulgarian, who like Nadal enjoyed a second-round walkover, is the fresher player and can prevail against the talented Medvedev, who has yet to win a five-set match in his career.

The Pick: Grigor Dimitrov defeats Daniil Medvedev in five sets


 

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