Thursday’s Men’s quarterfinals started around dinnertime in the hot Mexican air with Americans John Isner and Tommy Paul squaring off. Isner led the match off by taking the first set in a tiebreaker-- which he took 7-3. Isner threw in 10 aces, won 78% of the points played on his first serve, 82% of those played on his second serve, and allowed his dominating serve to take him into the tiebreaker. If it’s been said that Pete Sampras won because he had the best second serve in the business, Isner is right there with him.
But Isner’s serve cooled off, he threw in a couple of double faults, and Paul broke early in the second set to take a 4-1 lead. To give you an idea of how much Isner’s serve cooled off, after two service games of the second set, Isner had won 63% of points played on his first serves and only 25% (1 of 4) of his second serves up to that point. Isner served five times in the second set and Paul broke twice, an enormous effort and accomplishment for the young American, as he knotted the match up at a set apiece. But Isner regrouped quickly, regained his dominating serve, and ran away with the third set. He hit six aces in the third set alone, won 13 of 15 first serve points, and ended the match in total control, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2.
Taylor Fritz and Kyle Edmund hit the court next with a crowd of restless Mexicans and vacationers looking forward to some rallies. But along with those rallies they got a lesson in how not to play, strategically, as both players either couldn’t or wouldn’t, but didn’t get their first serve in often enough. Fritz finished the match getting only 56% of his first serves in (39 out of 70)—an acceptable amount with his tough serve, but no better than acceptable, and Edmund got 58% of his in (38 out of 65). Edmund paid the price for winning only 2 of 7 points on his first serve in his first two service games when he was immediately broken. Yet Fritz gave his advantage right back by getting broken at 3-1, and Edmund resumed the game with a more positive look, serving at 2-3. Four holds ensued, and they went into the all-important tenth game on serve at 5-4, Fritz leading, and Edmund serving to stay in the set. But Edmund couldn’t get his first delivery to obey him at that important juncture, so he took some speed off his serve at 15-30. Fritz jumped all over the meatball, and held a set point. Edmund finally got a first serve in to save one set point, but Fritz, who looked eager and confident at that point, jumped all over another first serve and pocketed the strangely competitive but sloppy first set 6-4 in 45 minutes.
Fritz came out for the second set a different player. He got three out of four first serves in to start, and hit two aces, as he assumed command of the match. Fritz picked up his 8th ace in the third game of the second set, before Edmund managed to hold serve, again after a struggle. Fritz held serve quickly, but only won points that he got first serves in, like game point, where he hit his ninth ace. But at 2-3 chaos ensued as both competitors reverted to the frustratingly inconsistent play they exhibited in the first set. Each paid dearly for not being able to get first serves in, again, and the quality of play dipped, just like that.
As Edmund served at 2-3 and deuce on Edmund’s serve, the Brit failed to get another first serve in at 30 all, and the American finally broke through as Edmund imploded. With that break, Fritz served at 4-2 but Edmund took advantage of Fritz’ very spotty play, and broke back to gain new life, serving at 3-4. No matter. He couldn’t hold on, got broken, and Fritz served it out at 5-3, saving two more break points in that last game, to complete a choppy, sloppy, and decidedly ugly battle for a spot in the semis, 6-4, 6-3 in a little over 90 minutes.
Then it was time for Wawrinka/Dimitrov. I picked Stan the Man because he is “on”! He played wonderfully in his first-round win over Frances Tiafoe, even though he needed a third set tiebreaker to finally subdue the American. But all these Tour players are great athletes, and, obviously, the best tennis players in the world. So rather than dissing him for needing three tough sets to subdue Big Foe, I’m choosing to compliment them both for how well they played. Wawrinka took a great serve and consistently excellent groundies into this match against a guy who just made the semifinals of the U.S. Open and has been slowly rounding into the player that he was back in 2017-2018 when he was ranked 3rd in the world.
Dimitrov came out with all cylinders firing, focused, and ready to, as they say on Wall Street “…bite the ass off a bear.” He got 76% of his first serves in and won 72% of those points. When he was receiving, he won the point 67% of the time he faced a second serve and he won 64 total points to Wawrinka’s 51 points.
Now, Wawrinka has also been ranked as high as #3 in the world, so this match was not lost because of poor play, it was won because of excellent play. Wawrinka managed to get 60% of his first serves in, which is okay, and he also won 72% of the points played on his first serves, which is fine. What cost him this match was he only won 33% of the points played on his second serve (compared to 47% for Dimitrov), which led to him getting broken 3 times, when he gave the Bulgarian 6 opportunities to cash in on break point. Those three breaks won contributed in a big way towards Dimitrov’s win. By contrast, Wawrinka had 4 chances to break but succeeded only once. When the Bulgarian got the opportunity to return a second serve, he cashed in and won those points 67% of the time, and that will win you matches on every level of the game. One other stat worth noting: When serving a second serve, Wawrinka was only able to win 11% (1 of 9) of those points. The Bulgarian won 64 total points, Wawrinka won 51 total points. Now, THAT’s what wins you matches.
So, now that the crowd had seen some exciting tennis, they got the treat of watching Rafa take the court against Soonwoo Kwon for the last quarterfinal match of the evening.
Nadal jumped out to a 4-1 lead and looked sharp, although it’s always tough for the guys who don’t get much chance to play him. Rafa makes everyone work not only for every point, but for every rally and every shot. He hits the ball with so much topspin that his shots bounce high, and those not used to his style of play are initially shocked to try to return shots from head height. These shots are particularly difficult to get used to, particularly on the forehand side, and most of the Tour’s players prefer to hit forehands over backhands, so it makes rallying effectively particularly difficult. When you take away someone’s strength, it can be a humbling feeling for the guy who can’t control the points with his best shot. But strangely, Rafa’s serve has the ability to dominate play for him, and it did in this match. It’s really a wonder to realize that Rafa is a natural right hander, yet serves with his left arm, but it’s true. Like Bjorn Borg before him, Rafa has developed his serve over time so that it has become a real weapon, and he uses it as such.
Nadal ran out to an early lead, winning the first set 6-2 after assuming that 4-1 lead. But the South Korean had his chances, and if he had been able to convert any of his five opportunities to break serve this would have been a lot closer, and the score would have reflected that. Nadal seemed to have no trouble with Kwon, and the Mallorcan duplicated the same 4-1 lead in the second set, as the outcome appeared foregone. And although the numbers tell a slightly different story, as Kwon had his chances, the match proceeded without great suspense. Yet, Kwon had 8 break points spread out over the two sets and his inability to convert, or to look at it a different way, Rafa just focused better when he was down, leading to a final score that was a bit deceiving. Rafa dominated where it counts—on the scoreboard, and he won twenty-two more points than his South Korean opponent, so the clearly better player won, 6-2, 6-1.
The tournament is getting down to the nitty-gritty as the boys now play for BIG MONEY. First up Friday for a spot in the weekend’s Finals and a chance for the top check of $372,785 are two Americans: John Isner and Taylor Fritz. I’m going with Isner in this match. He leads their own personal rivalry 2-1, and he appears to be serving well this week, the second set against Tommy Paul excluded, which he needs to do in order to win matches. He won a tiebreaker at least once in each match he’s played here, and his booming serve has generally dominated in those short tiebreakers. The loser of this match will receive $94,995, which is about as much as Reilly Opelka received last week when he won the Delray Beach ATP 250.
The second semi-final will pit Rafa against Grigor Dimitrov. The Bulgarian is playing awfully well and deserves a chance to play all the top guys, but I don’t think he’s going to win this match. If Rafa wins this event he has a chance to move up to #1 in the ATP rankings and I think that’s a priority for him right now. He may not say it, but it’s a source of pride for The Big Three. Rafa wants to be The Big One!
Rafa hasn’t lost a set yet this week, and until he’s tested it’s hard to bet against him. Dimitrov should present a physical challenge, but this match is the Mallorcan’s to lose. He won’t.