Men’s semifinals: The tale of the tape

  • Reem Abulleil

A compelling men’s semifinals line-up takes to the court on Thursday and Friday with plenty at stake for all four players. 

Here’s a close look at the men’s last-four match-ups.

Roger Federer (SUI)[3] v Novak Djokovic (SRB)[2]

The narrative

Both Djokovic and Federer are bidding to reach the Australian Open championship match for an eighth time, which would give the victor sole ownership of the men’s all-time record for most Australian Open finals reached.

Together, they’ve combined to win the last five consecutive Australian Opens, and 13 of the last 16 editions of the tournament.

“I think conditions suit us well here. Start the year strong. Probably something to do with court speed, feeling comfortable down here,” Federer said when trying to explain their shared dominance in Melbourne.

Djokovic has never lost a semifinal in Melbourne, and is looking to win a 17th Grand Slam this fortnight, which would put him within two of Rafael Nadal’s tally, and just three behind Federer.

Should the Serb defend his title here, he would reclaim the No.1 ranking, eclipsing Nadal, who lost in the quarterfinals to Dominic Thiem on Wednesday.
An eighth Australian Open title for Djokovic, on his 16th appearance at the event, would further cement his status as the most successful man in the tournament’s history.

For Federer, victory over Djokovic on Thursday would help erase the sting of his Wimbledon final defeat from last year, in which the Swiss held two match point but couldn’t convert.

Federer is bidding for a 21st Grand Slam trophy this week, which would help him pull away from his nearest rivals, Nadal and Djokovic. The 38-year-old saved seven match points in his quarterfinal against Tennys Sandgren despite carrying a groin injury that required medical attention during the clash.

“What he did was amazing. He showed me he's one of the best players of all time. I mean, he never gives up. When it matters the most, he's focused and he plays his best tennis,” Djokovic said of Federer’s heroics against Sandgren.

The winner of Thursday’s semifinal will record a 30th victory against a top-five opponent at a Grand Slam.

Head-to-head

This is Federer and Djokovic’s 50th meeting against one another, with the Serb leading their head-to-head 26-23.

Only Nadal and Djokovic have faced off more times at tour-level in the Open Era of men’s tennis (55 meetings).

Federer and Djokovic are facing off at a major for a 17th time, making this the most contested match-up in men’s singles at a Grand Slam in the Open Era. Djokovic leads 10-6 in their matches at the majors.

It’s also their fifth Australian Open showdown. No other duo have squared off more times in men’s singles at the tournament in the Open Era (Federer and Tomas Berdych also met five times at the Australian Open).

Federer is hoping to end a five-match losing streak to Djokovic at the majors. His last triumph over the Serb at a Slam came at the Wimbledon semifinals in 2012.  

“Wimbledon last year, he had two match points, he was one shot away from winning that match. It's not like I've been dominating the match-ups. I've had success against him, as you said, in Grand Slams in particular,” said Djokovic. 

“But Roger is Roger. You know that he's always going to play on such a high level, regardless of the surface. He loves to play these kind of matches, big rivalries, semis, finals of Grand Slams.”

Game styles

This match-up tends to bring out the best in each player. Djokovic’s supreme baseline game and ruthlessness, and Federer’s all-court prowess and aggression are taken to a different level when they are playing each other.

Djokovic has been very effective on serve this fortnight, leading the four semifinalists in percentage of service games won (93 per cent), number of aces (59), first-serve points won (84 per cent), and second-serve points won (57 per cent). Djokovic dropped serve just five times through his opening five matches. Federer on the other hand was broken on 11 occasions, has hit 51 aces and has the lowest winning percentage behind his first serve (76 per cent) among his fellow semifinalists.

Federer, unsurprisingly, has played and won the most net points compared to the other semifinalists (he won 162/221 net points, a 73 per cent success rate up front), and has serve-and-volleyed 12 per cent of the time (the other three semifinalists have done so two per cent of the time or less).

AO 2020

Djokovic dropped one set en route to the semis this fortnight, in his opener against Jan-Lennard Struff. The world No.2 has spent 10 hours 11 minutes on court in total and the average ranking of his opponents is 61.

Federer was stretched to five sets twice this tournament, climbing from 4-8 in the final-set tiebreak against John Millman in the third round, and saving seven match points against Sandgren in the quarterfinals. The Swiss world No.3 has spent 12 hours 38 minutes on court and the average ranking of his opponents is 66. It’s unclear how his groin injury will affect him in his semifinal against Djokovic, but it could be a factor. Of the 208 unforced errors Federer hit this fortnight, 113 have come off the forehand side.

Dominic Thiem (AUT)[5] v Alexander Zverev (GER)[7]

The narrative

Thiem is through to his first hard-court Grand Slam semifinal, and fifth overall. The 26-year-old Austrian took out Rafael Nadal in impressive fashion and is now bidding for a place in his third major final.

No other player from Austria has made more Slam semifinals than Thiem. He is just the second Austrian player – man or woman – to make the final four in Melbourne.

After reaching the ATP Finals decider at the end of last year, it’s remarkable how Thiem is backing up that performance so early in the season with this run at the Australian Open.  

This semifinal between Thiem and Zverev is a big win for the younger generation that has been trying to breakthrough and squeeze into the Grand Slam conversation amid the sheer dominance of the ‘Big Three’ of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Zverev is through to his maiden Grand Slam semifinal on his 19th appearance in a main draw at a major. The 22-year-old German has been an established top-10 player on tour, but had struggled to replicate his success from the ATP circuit to the Slams.

“I was very impatient. In a way, also was maybe paying attention to it too much, to the Grand Slams. You know what I mean? I was paying too much attention to them,” admits Zverev.

“Everything else, I was just playing better tennis at the other tournaments. At Madrid, Rome, other Masters, the World Tour Finals. The Grand Slams maybe meant too much for me.”

Zverev is the seventh German man in the Open Era to reach the semifinals at a Grand Slam, and the first since 2009, when Tommy Haas reached the last four at Wimbledon.

Thiem and Zverev are good friends, which adds an intriguing layer to this match-up.

Head-to-head

Thiem leads Zverev 6-2 head-to-head, and the Austrian has won their two most recent clashes, at the ATP Finals two months ago and the Roland Garros quarterfinals in 2018. Thiem is 2-1 against Zverev on hard courts, and 2-0 against him at the Slams.

“We know each other. For me, it's funny because it's first time in a Grand Slam semifinals I face a younger guy. We're good friends. I'm happy for him, as well, that he's playing so good here. He made his breakthrough at a Grand Slam,” says Thiem.

“We have no secrets from each other. I mean, we played so many times, also on very special occasions already, at the ATP Finals, semis, French Open quarters. It's a nice rivalry we have. It's great that we add an Australian Open semifinals to this one.”

Game styles

Thiem hits a huge ball and can be ultra-aggressive when needed. This match-up will be mostly contested on the baseline. Zverev appears to have put his serving woes behind him, and actually has the second-highest aces tally (behind Djokovic) among the four semifinalists (56).

AO 2020

Zverev dropped just one set en route to the semis, against Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals. The German has spent 10 hours 34 minutes on court and has dropped serve eight times.

He ended Andrey Rublev’s 15-match winning streak by taking out the Russian in the fourth round.

Thiem has dropped four sets on his way to the semis and has spent 14 hours and 33 minutes on court. He had a tough five-setter against home favourite Alex Bolt in the second round, fought past Taylor Fritz in four sets in the third round, and had a gruelling four-hour four-set affair with Nadal in the quarters.

The Austrian lost eight service games in total throughout the fortnight.