Semi-final preview: Djokovic v Tsitsipas

 - Ravi Ubha

The world No.1 continues his bid for a second Roland-Garros title as Tsitsipas targets a maiden Grand Slam final

The men’s semi-finals line-up at Roland-Garros can hardly be called a surprise.

In the bottom half of the draw, 12-time champion Rafael Nadal faces Italian Open finalist Diego Schwartzman while in the top half, dominant world No.1 Novak Djokovic confronts Hamburg finalist and his fellow deep thinker, Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The latter pair both won rematches on Wednesday.

Djokovic overcame Pablo Carreno Busta after being defaulted in their unforgettable clash at the US Open last month and Tsitsipas turned the tables on Andrey Rublev, his conqueror in the Hamburg finale 10 days prior. 

Tsitsipas was almost out of Roland-Garros at the first hurdle, having to rally from two sets down against Jaume Munar, who is mentored by Nadal.

Making his first semi-final in Paris is likely even sweeter for the 22-year-old Greek sensation given what transpired in New York. Though not as seismic compared to Djokovic’s plight, Tsitsipas fell to Borna Coric after he led two sets to one, held a 5-1 advantage in the fourth and had six match points.

A win for Tsitsipas on Friday books a spot in a first Grand Slam final as Djokovic bids for his…27th.


How good is Tsitsipas? Well, consider that he has downed each of the ‘Big Three’ and in environments where they thrive: Nadal on clay, Federer indoors and Djokovic on hard courts.

A closer inspection of his head-to-head against Djokovic shows an impressive 2-3 record.

Their last rendez-vous came in the final in Dubai on hard courts at the end of February, with Djokovic earning key breaks late in both sets for a 6-3, 6-4 victory.

Their lone duel on clay was won by Djokovic in the Madrid final last year by an identical scoreline, though it's worth noting that Tsitsipas was coming off a draining late night, two-and-a-half-hour win over Nadal.

Madrid — at altitude — holds much faster conditions than this fortnight’s heavier, cool ones in Paris.

Tsitsipas’ last win over Djokovic came on the faster hard courts of Shanghai in the 2019 quarter-finals, a time when the latter had won 48 of his previous 50 matches in China.

This will be their first Grand Slam encounter, not an insignificant point.

Where the match can be won

Djokovic is one of the fittest players to ever play the game but after what happened against Carreno Busta, one will be keeping a particular eye on his health.

He said he was dealing with neck and shoulder issues and also massaged his left bicep, prompting multiple visits from trainer Paul Ness.

Carreno Busta questioned the extent of Djokovic’s injury but it was clear the Serb struggled early. He misfired on his normally outstanding backhand and only served at 40 per cent in the first.

If there is a knock-on effect, however, it could swing the match in favour of the sixth-ranked Tsitsipas.

But Djokovic finished the match strongly and possesses much more experience than Tsitsipas on the biggest stages. He owns a 16-2 record in his last 18 Grand Slam semi-finals.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Roland Garros 2020, quarterfinal© Julien Crosnier/FFT

The two he lost? To Dominic Thiem last year in Paris in a match that began amid storm-like winds and Kei Nishikori at the US Open in 2014 on an extremely hot, humid day.

Maintaining a good first-serve percentage will be critical for both. Blasting aces in current conditions have proven difficult but Tsitsipas has managed to fire 31 aces past his opponents so far this fortnight, compared to a tally of 18 from Djokovic.

The Greek leads the tournament in points won behind his first serve, with a 77 per cent success rate.

One of the best returners ever, Djokovic could feast on second serves. None of his opponents in the last week and a half have managed to win 50 per cent of points behind their second serve. Against top-20 foes Carreno Busta and Khachanov, the Spaniard and Russian, respectively, registered figures of 44 per cent and 47 per cent.

Tsitsipas has been equally effective on his opponents' second serve so far this tournament, and, like Djokovic, has won 59 per cent of the points while returning that shot.

Key stats

As much as Djokovic has thrived at this stage of majors, players with one-handed backhands like Tsitsipas — and the extra pace they can generate — have troubled him at Roland-Garros.

Remove Nadal from the mix and Djokovic owns a 67-8 record in southwest Paris. Six of the eight defeats have come against one-handers in Dominic Thiem twice, Federer, Marco Cecchinato, Stan Wawrinka and Philipp Kohlschreiber.

If Djokovic’s previous matches are any indication, Tsitsipas should expect plenty of drop shots.

Statistics show that Djokovic has hit at least 64 drop shots — that total doesn’t include rallies that have continued after opponents got the drop shots back in play.

Tsitsipas and Djokovic have each dropped serve seven times this fortnight, with the former holding serve in 91 per cent of his service games and the latter just behind him with 90 per cent.

They've both ventured to the net with similar success (Djokovic won 67 per cent of his net points through five matches, Tsitsipas won 65 per cent), but the 22-year-old Tsitsipas has charged up front 22 more times than the Serb.

Novak Djokovic, Roland-Garros 2020, quarts de finale©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

What they said

Djokovic on Tsitsipas:

“He has an all-around game. He's a big guy, big serve. He has weapons, obviously serve and forehand, his backhand. He produces a lot of spin. He comes into the net. He can play aggressively. He can defend well because he moves well.

“Semi-finals of a Grand Slam, this is what you expect. You expect to play a top-five, top-10 player. This is what I get. I'm hopefully going to be able to feel my best and play my best.”

Tsitsipas on whether one of the Next Gen players can win the next Grand Slam:

“First of all, I would like to tell you that I'm not a Next Gen player anymore. I'm a proper adult.

“Second of all, for sure it's going to come at some point. Let's face it. Yeah, the big three have been there for a long time. I don't feel like it's going to be the same in five, six years' time, I believe.

“Third of all, I'm happy to be playing well enough, also be part of something so special. Next Gen is not Next Gen anymore. We are all young. I guess you can call it that way.