The first semi starts at 3 pm EST.
Sometimes it’s much easier to decipher what just happened in the 78 by 27 feet rectangle that makes up a tennis court than it is to figure out what just took place inside the roughly ten pounds (if the kid from “Jerry Maguire” was right) of some young tennis pro’s head. But why it happened seems to be a question that only Albert Einstein could figure out. Friday afternoon was that kind of day for Frances Tiafoe as he won just three games in seventy-one minutes while getting dismantled by France’s Ugo Humbert in what should have been a very competitive quarterfinal match here in Delray Beach. It’s easy to read the final score and decipher the match statistics, but it’s much harder to figure out why what happened actually took place. What was going on in the mind of the players? Here, Frances, what happened?
I rarely quote statistics when I discuss individual matches, because there is so much going on in a tennis match that stats just don’t justifiably explain. But looking at some of the key stats of Friday’s match between Tiafoe and Humbert tells the whole story. For instance, although Tiafoe got 65% of his first serves in (35 out of 54), he won only 46% of those points (16 out of 35). How does that happen? For comparison, Humbert got an unworldly 69% of his first serves in (33 out of 48), but won a whopping 73% of those points (24 of 33). Tiafoe won an acceptable 53% of second serve points (10 of 19), but Umbert won a rarely seen 67% of points played on his second serve (10 of 15).
Another telling statistic is that Humbert saved both break points played on his serve, but the Frenchman had a full ten chances to break Tiafoe’s serve, and he was able to convert four of those ten tries. After all, if you have enough chances, eventually you’re going to break. Here, Tiafoe provided Humbert with way too many chances. Tiafoe had to try to save ten full opportunities that he presented Humbert with, and the Frenchman eventually converted some of his chances.
Most matches on the ATP Tour are surprisingly close when you look at total points won. It’s even possible that the player who losses wins more points than the winner. An example would be last years’ Wimbledon Finals where Novak Djokovic eked out a tight fifth set tiebreaker for the first time in history, after saving two match points. In that incredibly close, entertaining tennis match between heavyweights Djokovic and Roger Federer, Djokovic won the match and the title, yet Federer actually won more points, 218-204. Even so, after five hours on the court, and over five long sets, the loser won just fourteen more points, or 3.3% (14/422) of the total points played. In this match, which lasted seventy one minutes spread out over just fifteen games, Humbert won 22 more points, 62-40, or 21.6% (22/102) more in percentage terms. To me, this is the definition of Tiafoe just getting slaughtered. Basically, the young American just disappeared and failed to compete.
Other matches were definitely more competitive, and even produced some scintillating tennis. Japan’s Yoshi Nishioka had trouble with young American Brandon Nakashima, but eventually pulled away, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4. In another five months or so, Nakashima will be winning those middle set tiebreakers, and should these guys play again, that could make all the difference. Nishioka now takes on Humbert, and if Humbert wins points in the kind of clusters with which he won them yesterday, I’d go with the Frenchman in that match.
Reilly Opelka topped South Korea’s Soowoo Kwon in straight sets in a scratchy, ugly match that Opelka won because his serve, coming down from the top of his 7-foot-tall mountain is so hard to return that he rarely has to do much other than hold serve and hope to win in tiebreakers. Here, even that wasn’t necessary, as neither player played particularly well. He’ll take on another gigantic server in today’s other semi, Canadian Milos Raonic, who topped American Stevie Johnson, who I have a new-found respect for as a tennis player. Raonic won the points that mattered, in particular the first set tiebreaker, where, at 6-6 he hit consecutive winners—a backhand and then a forehand, to close out the set. The second set appeared merely a formality, and the semis were set. The match between Opelka and Raonic is a tough call because they both rely on their serve so much, yet Raonic was successful in returning serve last night when his serve was not it’s usual dominant self. For this reason, I’m going with the tall Canadian over the tall American in today’s other semi.