WIMBLEDON, England — At the risk of getting too reductive, this year’s Wimbledon semifinals feature one simple contrast in style: big bombastic hitters and the brick-wall defenders who love them. Top-seed Novak Djokovic is the in-form man going into Thursday; he hasn’t dropped a set all tournament, and he’s winning his matches with a ruthless blend of serving efficiency and joint-breaking defense. He’ll take on Juan Martin del Potro in the first match on Centre Court, and he’ll be the heavy favorite given Del Potro’s injury concerns.
The second semifinal features Andy Murray, who will try to make his second straight Wimbledon final, and advance to the final of the fourth straight Grand Slam that he’s played in (he skipped the French Open with a back injury). He’ll face Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz, the first Polish man to make a Slam semifinal.
Here are my predictions for the men’s semifinal matches:
No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro (first match, Centre Court): How good has Djokovic been through the first five rounds of the tournament? Compared to his first five matches in 2011, when he went on to win his first Wimbledon title, he’s spent an hour and 12 minutes less on court this year, and over two hours less than Murray. He has an 8-3 record against Del Potro, but the Argentine won their only match on grass last year at the Olympics. That loss stung Djokovic for all the obvious reasons and he knows he has a very dangerous opponent up next.
“Well, I lost to him for bronze medal here,” Djokovic said, referring to his 7-5, 6-4 loss in the bronze medal match last year. “It was close match also. DelPo is a great player. I have a great respect for him. He’s a Grand Slam winner.”
This is Del Potro’s first Wimbledon semifinal, a surprising stat considering the fact that his game is so well suited to the surface. The biggest question coming into this match is Del Potro’s knee. He hyperextended it in the fourth round and hyperextended it again in the first game of his quarterfinal against David Ferrer. Thanks to some “magic pills” and some inspiration, he went on to play his best match of the tournament in beating Ferrer 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 (5).
“I will need to be 100% or 110% against [Djokovic],” Del Potro said. “He’s the No. 1. He’s a former champion here. It’s going to be more difficult match for me like today. But if I’m okay, if I do everything good to be ready for my next match, I will be exciting to play against him. I remember the match during the Olympic last year on the same surface. But this time the [pressure] is different, I know. I know it.”
Prediction: Djokovic in three sets.
No. 2 Andy Murray vs. No. 22 Jerzy Janowicz (second match, Centre Court): Anyone who dismissed Janowicz when looking at his ranking is nuts; this is a dangerous match-up for Murray. In the Paris Masters last fall, their only tour-level meeting, Janowicz stunned Murray with a 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-2 victory. That win kicked off Janowicz’s coming out party. Ranked No. 69 at the time, he had to qualify for Paris, and then went on to beat Murray for his first top five win on his way to a Cinderella run to the final, where he lost to David Ferrer.
Janowicz’s blend of huge power off a serve which regularly exceeds 135 mph, combined with his feathery touch on the drop shot makes him a dangerous opponent. Stay too far back in the rallies and he’ll burn you with a dropper. Step in and you’re forced to deal with his pace off the serve and the ground.
For those reasons, Murray’s five-set win over Fernando Verdasco in the quarterfinals may be a blessing in disguise. Like Janowicz, Verdasco was dishing up huge serves on Tuesday, but Murray’s returns got better as the match wore on, aiding his comeback victory from two sets down.
Janowicz, who idolized Pete Sampras while growing up in Poland, hits a much flatter ball than Verdasco. He could give Murray problems if he hits down the line with any regularity. Murray has spent the most time on court out of all the semifinalists, but he said he was feeling surprisingly good after his 3 hour and 47 minute match with Verdasco. Needlesss to say, with Janowicz’s serving prowess — he hit 30 aces in his three-set win over Lukasz Kubot in the quarterfinals — Murray can’t afford to come out flat. The first set of this match will be vital for Janowicz.
All that said, it should be noted that Janowicz is the least battle-tested of the bunch, having made it through the section of the draw vacated by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He’s only faced one seed in the tournament, No. 15 Nicolas Almagro and needed five sets to beat Jurgen Melzer in the fourth round, winning 6-4 in the third set. This is a huge occasion for the emotional Janowicz — no really, who has shed more tears this fortnight: Sabine Lisicki or Janowicz? — and with the Centre Court crowd firmly behind Murray, this could be an overwhelming experience for him.
Prediction: Murray in four sets.