Following an intense fortnight of action at the US Open, the tour moves on to Rome for the rescheduled Masters 1000/Premier 5 tournaments. With it being the first clay tournament for many, and for some the first since the COVID-19 break, we’ve seen plenty of upsets. Many big names remain, however, and the Men’s first semifinal sees world no.1 Novak Djokovic take on Casper Ruud. On the Women’s side, the renowned clay-court specialist Simona Halep faces up against another force on the dirt, Garbine Muguruza.
Novak Djokovic(1) vs. Casper Ruud
Sunday, September 19, Rome
In his first tournament back since the mindblowing default at the US Open, Novak Djokovic has looked labored. Never a fan of high heat, the 86+ Fahrenheit Rome has been seeing this week hasn’t pleased the world no. 1 one bit. Usually as solid as a rock from the baseline, that hasn’t been the case this week. Compiling more unforced errors than winners in all of his matches with both wings malfunctioning, we haven’t seen the man we usually do.
The Djokovic forehand was especially egregious in his quarterfinal match against Dominik Koepfer, with a whopping 26 of the 38 unforced errors stemming from it. After going up 4-0 in 16 minutes, it looked like the qualifier wasn’t going to put up much of a fight. But while the German hung tough, the Serb let him back into the match on multiple occasions, even squandering a set and a break lead to be forced into as deciding set. Another massive problem has been the break-point conversion. One of the best of all time in this category, Novak converts at a 45.27% clip throughout his career on this surface. This week, he’s gone 12/42 for a measly 28.6%!
Such complacency won’t be forgiven in the semifinal against Casper Ruud. The Norwegian clay-court specialist just made history as he upped his father’s best result and became the first from his country to ever make a Masters 1000 semifinal. At his best on slower clay, the clever point construction, the different spins, and shapes he can put on the ball prove a tricky challenge. Casper moves well and has a ferocious forehand wing which one would want to avoid as often as possible in the baseline rallies.
It’s been an impressive showing this week from the 22-year old, who’s maneuvered past the world no. 16 Karen Khachanov, the former Major champion Marin Cilic, and the world no. 8 and home hope Matteo Berrettini. Having to come back from a set down and show great nerve to recover from several deficits in the deciding set tiebreak, the Norwegian should be well prepared for this test.
Casper Ruud certainly has all the weapons required to test the world no.1 in this contest, especially when he’s far from his best. Djokovic has the uncanny ability to switch on at any moment, but when misfiring this badly he’ll be in for another tough test. Though the Serb has an excellent record here in Rome, he’s lost a set in five of his last eight semifinal appearances, often made to work hard for the victory. If Ruud can handle his nerves, this should be a close affair.
The ATP Odds makes Djokovic the overwhelming favorite quoted at around -500 by the best sportsbooks, Ruud found in the +400 range. Looking at the total, it’s set at a meager 20 games at BetOnline, and that -147 price looks worth attacking.
Simona Halep(1) vs. Garbine Muguruza(9)
Sunday, September 19, Rome
The Queen of clay doesn’t look to have missed a beat after the tour was suspended. Opting out of playing in the US due to COVID-19 concerns, Simona Halep has stayed in Europe and prepared for her most beloved clay surface. Shaking off a bit of rust in Prague, the Romanian won the title and now looks to be surging once more here in Rome.
Thus far, no one has been able to live with the supreme court coverage and tenacity from the world no.2, who has won comfortably in straight sets in all of her matches. In Halep’s quarterfinal match, she was cruising up 6-2, 2-0 before Yulia Putintseva was forced to retire. The two-time finalist will surely appreciate her biggest adversary Elina Svitolina, who’s defeated her in back-to-back finals, eliminated earlier today. Simona will now pursue a maiden Rome title.
First, she will have to get through Garbine Muguruza, however, and that is no simple task. The former world no.1 is supremely comfortable on clay, with a 2016 Roland Garros title to her name. It hadn’t been a great restart for Garbine, who struggled with a foot injury that forced her withdrawal from “Cincinnati”. She was then upset by the tournament sensation Tsvetana Pironkova in the US Open, who came back from maternity leave after 3 years to make a surprise quarterfinal run.
Here in Rome, the Spaniard has played herself into form and has looked assured after a shaky three-set win over Cori Gauff. Overcoming Johanna Konta in straight sets, Muguruza took on the red-hot Victoria Azarenka in her quarterfinal bout. On a 15-1 streak, the Belarusian had been borderline unstoppable, and it looked to be a test too tough to overcome at first. Down a set and a break, the 2017 semifinalist hung tough on several occasions. Eventually, Garbine managed to stage a comeback against the fading Azarenka, who was understandably running out of energy after her exertions in the US.
This should be a cracking contest, with Muguruza’s powerful shot-making ability up against the court coverage skills and tenacity of Halep. We’ve seen this matchup play out on six other occasions, and it’s the Spaniard who leads the way by 4-2. All of Muguruza’s victories have come on hard court, while Halep won both clay court affairs. It’s clear that the extra court speed is needed for the Spaniard to break through the Romanian’s defenses, and on a slow clay court like at this venue that won’t be the case.
Simona will grind out long rallies and eventually force Garbine to go for too much or commit an unforced error. The WTA Odds make Halep the strong favorite in this contest at around the -235 range, with Muguruza hovering around +190. It certainly looks a favorable matchup on slow clay, and one the Romanian should dominate. With the Halep -3.5 games on offer at a -119 BookMaker price, that’ll be our tennis pick for the contest.