Here’s a look at the men’s semifinals on Day 13 of the U.S. Open. CBS will televise both matches beginning at noon. For the complete order of play, click here.
Novak Djokovic vs. Stanislas Wawrinka (first semifinal): Less than nine months ago, the two were slated to play a fourth-round match at the Australian Open that, with all due respect to Wawrinka, was supposed to be a cakewalk for the top-ranked Serb. Going into that match, Wawrinka, then ranked No. 17, hadn’t beaten Djokovic since 2006, losing 10 straight matches. Scheduled as the last match on Rod Laver Arena on a Sunday night, it was supposed to be a no-drama end to the first week.
And then Wawrinka took the first set 6-1 in 25 minutes and, much to everyone’s surprise, he never went away. In the match of the tournament, and, at least in my mind, the match of the year, Wawrinka and Djokovic traded haymakers for 5 hours, 2 minutes. Wawrinka played the match of his career only to lose 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10. What did it take to fend off the inspired Swiss No. 2 that day? Take a look at match point and you get the picture:
This was the match that infused Wawrinka with belief that he could lock horns with the sport’s elite. Even though he lost and didn’t leave his hotel room for three days, he took the positives from it.
“I say many times that it’s one of the key of the season, for sure,” Wawrinka said after dismissing defending U.S. Open champion Andy Murray in straight sets in the quarterfinals. “That was a really tough moment, but at the end, I was really positive with that match because all Australian Open my level was quite good and was better than ever. That’s the most important [thing] for me. It’s when I practice when I feel I’m playing good tennis, then I know the result will come.”
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.” That Samuel Beckett line is tattooed in script on the inside of Wawrinka’s left forearm, a reminder to himself to think positively, learn and take the risks to improve. Four months after that Australian Open loss, he won his first title in two years, at a small tournament in Portugal. A week later, he made his first ATP Masters 1000 final, in Madrid, where he lost to Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-4, but returned to the top 10 for the first time since 2008. He’s beaten top-10 players seven times since April, including Murray and No. 5 Tomas Berdych at the U.S. Open.
The 10th-ranked Wawrinka knows exactly how he must play against Djokovic. He needs to hug the baseline, take the ball early on his backhand and remain aggressive. The most impressive thing about that Australian Open match was how committed Wawrinka was to taking as much time as he could away from Djokovic and how well he executed on his backhand.
Watch him suffocate the best hard-court defender here:
But that effort is going to be very difficult to replicate on Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the wind and sun has been an issue all week. In these conditions and with Djokovic’s experience — he’s going for his seventh straight hard-court Slam final — Wawrinka will need Djokovic to have an off-day to help him get into this match. I don’t think Wawrinka could play any better than he did against Djokovic in Melbourne and he still lost.
The Serb has quietly made his way through the tournament with little drama, other than dropping a set to Mikhail Youzhny in the quarterfinals. Wawrinka won’t have the element of surprise that he had nine months ago, either. Djokovic knows exactly what he can expect (he leads the head-to-head 12-2) and he’ll be locked in.
Prediction: Djokovic in four sets.
Rafael Nadal vs. Richard Gasquet (second semifinal): Does Gasquet have enough in the tank to make this a competitive match? The 27-year-old Frenchman, who is into his second career Slam semifinal, is coming off two emotionally and physically draining five-set wins. He needed 4 hours and 40 minutes to get past Milos Raonic 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 2-6, 7-6 (9), 7-5 in the fourth round, and nearly three and a half hours to defeat No. 4 David Ferrer 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3 in the quarterfinals. Gasquet is 0-10 against Nadal, including a 14-set losing streak dating to 2008.
As for Nadal, he has looked flat-out scary over the last two weeks. He has held all 67 service games at the U.S. Open, and is actually on an 82-game streak dating to the semifinals in Cincinnati against Berdych. As for his undefeated streak against Gasquet, we all know how difficult one-handers have it against Nadal’s heavy topspin and that’s no different for Gasquet, who will rarely get a ball in his strike zone to unleash his backhand as a weapon.
Here are highlights from the 2007 Masters Cup, which Nadal won 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
I wish I could come up with angle in which this semifinal will be a highly competitive affair. But given Nadal’s current form — he’s 20-0 on hard courts this year — Gasquet is going to need a lot of things to go his way to make this a match.
Prediction: Nadal in three sets.