TONIGHT sees the men's semi-finals at the US Open, with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic looking to set up another heavyweight clash in a major final.
It looks like the hot spell is over in New York, with the temperature dipping to 25C on Friday, 23C on Saturday and 21C on Sunday, which will be a relief to the players.
The tournament has come in for a bit of criticism over the deliberate slowing down of the courts, and with cooler weather expected as well hopefully that’s good news for Nadal.
Slower and higher bouncing is certainly something Rafa likes, but he hasn’t exactly had things all his own way so far on the slower court surface, which was meant to make all courts (including practice courts) the same speed.
Rafael Nadal vs Juan Martin Del Potro
The layers have not been impressed with Rafa this tournament, to the extent that he’s a 1.65 chance to beat Delpo in what will be their 18th career clash and 11th on outdoor hard.
Whenever he’s been that sort of price to beat Delpo he’s lost: in the 2016 Olympics, 2009 US Open and 2009 Rogers Cup, but I can’t see any value in backing Del Potro at these odds.
It’s easy to see why Nadal is such an uneasy favourite compared to this time last year when he was a 1.37 chance in the semi-finals and that’s simply looked so vulnerable against power hitters this week and doesn’t appear to be fully fit.
His stats (admittedly from only four-and-a-bit) matches show he’s on a hold/break total of 108.5 this tournament, compared to his 12-month average before this US Open on outdoor hard, which was 121.5.
Apart from easy openers against the soon-to-be-retired David Ferrer and Vasek Pospisil it’s been very hard work for Nadal against powerful hitters in Karen Khachanov, Nikoloz Basilashvili and Dominic Thiem.
All three have rocked him, with Khachanov and Thiem arguably in with fine chances of winning, but their nerve didn’t hold at the vital times. One would think that Delpo wouldn’t have that issue.
The right knee may also be a problem for Nadal, which might explain his apparent vulnerability this fortnight, but back against Rafa at your peril in major semi-finals.
Nadal is 24-4 in his career in major semi-finals, with his last loss as favourite (he was slight underdog when Djokovic beat him in that controversial ‘roof gate’ Wimbledon semi final this year) coming against Delpo in the 2009 US Open semi.
That Djokovic loss was his only semi final defeat in 17 matches since that 2009 New York loss to Delpo and I don’t think I could back Delpo to beat Nadal over the best of five sets at this price.
The only time Delpo’s ever done that was in that 2009 US Open semi, pre-wrist injuries, and with a fully functioning backhand and that latter issue makes it tough for the Tower of Tandil against Rafa.
Delpo’s lack of bite on that wing allows Nadal to sneak into the net on occasion, expecting the slice from that side, and it’s not going to be easy for Delpo to get his forehand into play.
He’s been serving at a very high percentage this tournament though, so that’s a plus for Delpo, but he served at 66% here a year ago versus Rafa and at 63% against him at Wimbledon and lost both of those.
Delpo only won 28% of the points on his second serve against Nadal a year ago here and 45% at Wimbledon, so he needs that high number of first serves to have a chance.
On this week’s form Delpo has a decent shot, but I’d want a bigger price to back Del Potro here and either backing Nadal (if you’re not on him outright) or taking the over 202.5 total minutes look the bets here.
It took Nadal three minutes shy of 202 minutes to beat Basilashvili and almost five hours to beat Thiem (and one of those sets was a bagel), so unless it’s a crushing win for Delpo over minutes looks the call here.
Novak Djokovic vs Kei Nishikori
These superstar tennis players are masters at downplaying their chances and I thought that Nadal was perhaps the best on that score until I saw this from Djokovic: “I can’t say he [Nishikori] is a great matchup for me – he plays very fast.”
That’s from a man who’s won his last 13 matches in a row against that opponent and only one of them was close, which was the Rome semi-final of 2016 that went to a final set tie break.
Nishikori has failed to take a set in seven of his last 10 matches against Djokovic and none on outdoor hard since stunning the Serb here in the New York in the 2014 semi final at roughly the same odds he is this time.
The Japanese has been at his most competitive against Djokovic on clay, while on all surfaces combined he’s held serve only 62.5% of the time, so I’m at a loss as to why Djokovic thinks this is not a good match-up for him.
I can’t really think of anything that Nishikori does better than Djokovic on a tennis court and that weak serve has proven too easy for the Serb to break, with Kei winning only 54.5% of his service points in total in their career series.
It’s been very much a return-dominated career match-up, with second serves of both men getting severely tested (Nishikori winning 43% and Djokovic 45%) and as a result only 0.09 tie breaks per set have been played.
Around evens is decent on no tie breaks, with 11 of their last 13 meetings not featuring a breaker and as far as match odds are concerned the price looks about right on the Serb.
So much would have to fall right for Nishikori that I’d probably want a bigger price on him here even than the 4.70 that he’s been quoted at and even the weather has turned in Novak’s favour.
The Serb has struggled badly at times in the extreme heat even against players that lack the weapons to really hurt him, but that spell has gone and with it the chance of an upset.
John Millman gave Djokovic a very good workout and it is fair to say that Djokovic hasn’t exactly impressed this fortnight, but how much of that is due to the brutal playing conditions?
Both of these men have had their problems with serious injury in the last year or so and perhaps neither are quite the force they were, but I haven’t seen anything from Nishi since the wrist injury that makes me fancy him to turn around this career series.
Looking at Djokovic’s record in major semi finals we find that it’s very similar to that of Nadal in the sense that his only loss as favourite since 2012 was versus today’s opponent – Nishikori in the 2014 semi final here.
Djokovic -1.5 sets is the likely outcome of this one, but it’s hardly a great price and wagers that focus on the likely high amount of breaks of serve look the ones to focus on here.
Only two of their 16 opening sets against each other have gone past nine games, so under 9.5 games in set one at 2.02 is another value wager given that trend and their strong return games.