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Rafael Nadal celebrates winning against Jan-Lennard Struff during a quarterfinal match at the Barcelona Open, Spain, Friday, April 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Rafael Nadal celebrates winning against Jan-Lennard Struff during a quarterfinal match at the Barcelona Open, Spain, Friday, April 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)|Associated Press
Tennis

Tennis Saturday: Abrams on Barcelona Open semifinals, Nishikori  v Medvedev, Nadal v Thiem

Matches start at 7:30 am EDT

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell
Barcelona, Spain
Saturday, April 27, 2019
Men’s Semifinals

Rafa Nadal over Dominic Thiem
I’m ready, willing, and able to pick someone to beat Rafa here on clay, because the man from Mallorca has not been playing great tennis as of late. The thing is, though, that I have to actually think one of his opponents is actually playing well enough to beat Nadal, and I just haven’t seen that. Can Dominic Thiem beat Rafa? Sure. Thiem is a fantastic clay court player—probably the second best in the world at this point. And Thiem beat Roger Federer in the finals of Indian Wells, a Masters 1000 event about six weeks ago—the tournament that preceded the Miami Open. Beating Federer is always a feat, and Thiem beat The Fed on hard courts, one of Federer’s best surfaces, and not Thiem’s favorite. Unfortunately for those looking to have the NextGen take over from the Big 3 already, I have been surprised that none of the kids have consistently been playing well enough to stand out enough for me to pick them when the draw avails itself to those juicy encounters. And I can’t pick Thiem to beat Nadal here. To me, Thiem was very fortunate to win his match yesterday against left-handed Argentinean Guido Pella. Their match essentially came down to who was going to pull out the first set, a set in which both players had their chances. I thought Pella was going to take it when Thiem misplayed drop shots at both 4-4 and 4-5. First, Thiem hit a mediocre dropper on the slow clay and misjudged the situation entirely by not following his shot forward. Consequently, Pella replied with a drop shot of his own that the Austrian wasn’t prepared for and wasn’t able to reach. Had Thiem moved forward with his shot he not only would have been able to reach Pella’s reply, he would have had every opportunity to hit a winner because he would have been in the perfect strategic position. The second misplayed drop shot occurred at 4-5 when Thiem tried to hit one for a winner and just plunked it into the net, which can be considered a mortal sin in professional tennis. Strike two. But, lo and behold, Pella got tight, made errors, and dropped two games from 5-all to lose the set 7-5, and he was done. Thiem ran out the second set 6-2, Pella never got him to strike three, and it almost appeared that Pella handed the match to Thiem rather than seizing control and taking the match for himself.

Nadal, for his part, never looked like the beast that he usually is in his quarterfinal triumph over Jan-Lennard Sruff. Yes, he came up with the goods in two straight sets when locked at 5-5 to roll to a straight set victory, but he was never the dominating soul we expect to see when Nadal walks on a clay court. Additionally, playing in front of a crowd of Spaniards, who worship the man more than a deity, had to help the Mallorcan, but Rafa looked strangely mortal. If someone looked better, I’d say it. But so far, the players here, aside from possibly Kei Nishikori, have looked strangely mediocre.

So if neither Nadal nor Thiem are playing great tennis, who do I expect to triumph? Nadal holds an 8-3 edge in their personal rivalry, and that should give you all the hint you need to pick this match.

Kei Nishikori over Daniil Medvedev
Speaking of excellence, say hello to Kei Nishikori, the player in Barcelona who looks like the best of the bunch this week. Kei has been doing all the things that he has learned to do that disrupt his opponents about as well as they can be done, and I expect him to charge past Medvedev, the 6’6” fifth-year pro from Moscow. Nishikori’s timing seems to be darn near perfect on the slow clay here, allowing him to crowd the baseline and take almost all his shots on the rise. As I mentioned yesterday, this allows him to take vital time away from his opponents as he quickly directs the ball back without allowing it to reach its apex on each shot. This throws off the timing of his opponents and robs them of important milliseconds, usually necessary to feel like you’re in your rhythm. It usually means the most when his opponents feel pressured to hit passing shots or trying to defend effectively, as they never quite feel like they’re set up properly, and always feel like they’re being rushed when executing their shots. It is quite a disconcerting feeling for someone who relies on groundies, as clay courters tend to do. As such, I see Nishikori taking out Medvedev with little trouble, as long as the his timing stays as sharp as it has been. If Medvedev tries to grab precious time back by simply retreating six to nine feet behind the baseline, it will open up near impossible angles for the Russian to cover, and will eventually lead to Nishikori hitting winners and Medvedev making errors from strange positions he’s not used to playing shots from.