US Open: Men's Semifinals Preview
Rafael Nadal versus Juan Martin del Potro
It was the semifinal that many were looking forward to since the draw was released, and come Friday, for the second consecutive year, Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro will duke it out in the semifinals of the US Open. It also marks the third time this season these two will battle at a major. What remains to be seen is if Nadal can make it four in a row against the Argentine or if del Potro can turn the tables against him to return to the US Open final since he won the title in 2009.
From the outset, Nadal has been considered a co-favorite to waltz away with this title, and that status will not change on Friday against the third seed. As he has demonstrated throughout this event alone, he is extremely difficult to defeat in a best-of-five format. There are no glaring weaknesses in his game. His forehand continues to dictate as much as ever, his backhand is inflicting damage right and left, and his movement around the court just goads opponents into biting off more than they can chew. But as fearsome as Nadal's game is, it is essential that he has all of his weapons firing at their best. He cannot afford to drop his forehand short or del Potro with all of his height is going to wail on the ball to take control. It is also imperative that Nadal has a good serving day, as the Argentine can hurt him on the return, particularly if he gets too many looks at a second serve.
As far as del Potro is concerned, he has the comfort of knowing that when at his best, he has the kind of game that can defeat anyone else on tour, including Nadal. His own forehand will be the biggest weapon on the court, and it will be up to him to find it often and rip it when the opportunity presents itself if he wants to earn the upset. Like the top seed, he needs to have a good serving day as well. His serve is bigger than the Spaniard's, but because his defense is not on the same level, he does not want to let Nadal tee off on too many second deliveries to get him on the run. The wild card in the third seed's game will be his backhand. Although he has developed an exceptional slice on that wing, he has to be careful about when and how he uses it. Nadal's footwork is second to none, and he will wrestle control of the points if he sees the slice too much. As a result, del Potro may be required to hit through that shot more frequently if he wants to stay on top in the rallies.
As two seasoned veterans, this is a match that should rely more on how their respective games match up on the day, but there is no discounting the mental factor. Nadal holds the obvious advantage in this department. As previously noted, he has won their last three meetings, including at Roland Garros and Wimbledon this year, as well as at this event in 2017. He has been here far more often and leads this rivalry 11-5. And though they can be emotionally taxing, the way he has been able to successfully fight through his last three matches are bound to give him confidence even if he falls behind in the score.
That all said, it is because del Potro is one of the players who walks on the court knowing he has a very legitimate chance of upending the Spaniard that makes this match intriguing. He did clip Nadal here in 2009, and the match they played earlier this summer at Wimbledon was a tight five-setter. Furthermore, unlike last year, he is the one who arrives at this match having spent less time on the court, which should leave him the physically and mentally fresher. He has had plenty of notable victories in his career, so he enters this match knowing another is in the realm of possibility.
So, who will prevail? Only time will truly tell, but neither outcome would be a huge shock. Nadal has to be considered the favorite to move through. His overall game is better than the Argentine's, and that is only magnified in the best-of-five format. But do not count out del Potro. He brings an impressive arsenal to the table, and if he is in top form, then he could easily be the one who advances.
Novak Djokovic versus Kei Nishikori
Like Rafael Nadal in the top half of the draw, Novak Djokovic has lived up to his billing as a co-favorite at this event by working his way into the semifinals. Standing between him and a coveted spot in Sunday's final is Kei Nishikori, and one can be sure that Djokovic will not be taking him lightly.
Nishikori was once ranked as high as Number 4 in the world, and he has done an admirable and quick job of climbing back into the Top 20 after returning from injury earlier this year. The skills that have helped him rise back up the ranks are such that they could pose potential problems for Djokovic. Nishikori is one of the fastest guys out there, so Djokovic will have to work the point to create space rather than try to hit right through him. Nishikori also has the ability to really flatten out the ball from either wing and from just about anywhere on court, and he gets a deceptive amount of pop on his first serve. His backhand down the line has been his bread-and-butter throughout this fortnight, and it will be key for him in this match as he looks to move the Serb out of position. If he can execute that shot as well as make a concerted effort to stay up on the baseline and keep juice on his groundstrokes, he is for sure in with a chance to cause the upset.
The harsh reality for Nishikori in this match, however, is that there really is not much that he does that Djokovic does not typically do a little better. The lone exception to this may be with his play in the forecourt, but otherwise, Djokovic is generally superior. He covers the court better and often does a better job of turning his defense into offense. He sports more variety off the ground and can inject more pace into his shots when he wants to as well. But the biggest asset he enjoys is his return of serve. It is certainly one of the best in the history of the game, and if it is clicking for him on Friday, he should be able to put a lot of pressure on the twenty-first seed in his service games, which should free him up more on his own.
Djokovic's more complete and dominant game along with his ability to deliver in the crucial moments is clearly evident in the dominant 14-2 record he enjoys against the Japanese man, including wins in all three of their meetings this year. He is coming in off of better results as well, having reasserted himself with his win at Wimbledon and capturing the title in Cincinnati before arriving in New York. If that were not enough, he has far more experience playing these types of matches.
But all will not be lost for Nishikori. He has been to this juncture of a major on a few occasions and reached the final here in 2014. His matches with the Serb in 2018 have all been competitive affairs, and one of his two wins over Djokovic did come at this venue when he made that run to the final four years ago. He is also a wily veteran, so although he will be aware that it has been slim picking for him against the sixth seed, he is unlikely to be overwhelmed by the challenge that sits before him.
It should be interesting to see how this one unfolds. Naturally, between all that he has accomplished at the majors, his dominant head-to-head against Nishikori, and his being the higher seed thanks to the better results he has enjoyed throughout 2018, Djokovic is the favorite to advance. Nishikori definitely has a chance to garner the upset though. He, too, has a nice game, and he is both talented and experienced enough to make Djokovic pay if he goes on any of the mental walkabouts that have occasionally plagued him throughout the last couple of weeks. Still, the smart money remains on Djokovic.