I love ATP majors. There is always a surprise, and this year’s edition of the French Open has been no different. It all started with the unexpected elimination of Stefanos Tsitsipas, who lost in the fourth round to 19-year-old Holger Rune in four sets. The Greek was poised to make a run to the final but was shaky from the start, going a full five sets against Italian Lorenzo Musetti, followed by a thrilling four-set win over Zdenek Kolar, a player with just one ATP match on record. Four sets, three tiebreaks.
No French Open would be complete without some Rafael Nadal magic. As a 2-1 underdog to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinal, Nadal put on a show, routing Djoker 6-2 in the opening set and again in the third set to win in four after coming back from down 4-1 in the fourth set. It was brilliant. A match that slaps you in the face for ever doubting him in the first place.
On deck: two semifinal matches featuring two of the best clay court players on tour each facing two power hitters who excel on harder surfaces. Interesting.
Rafael Nadal (-335) vs. Alexander Zverev (+275)
Game spread: 5.5
Game total: OV/UN 37
In case you didn’t hear, Nadal is the King of Clay. Rafa holds the record for the most clay titles (62) in the Open Era, has 13 French Open titles (the most of any player in any major), has won four French Open events without dropping a set, and holds a 110-3 record at Roland Garros. The three players to beat Nadal were Robin Soderling in 2009, and Djokovic in 2015 and 2021. Could Zverev be the fourth?
Ranked third on tour, Zverev has reached at least the semifinal of a major four times before, including last year’s French Open where he lost to Tsitsipas in five sets. You would think that the best surface for Zverev is on hardcourt or faster surfaces (which can still be true), but he actually has the highest win percentage (71.5) on clay where he's won six clay titles, including the 2017 ATP Masters 1000 Rome, whose court speed is often compared to Roland Garros'. Zverev is capable.
How Nadal can win
Rafa needs to keep the rallies long. The longer the point, the better for Nadal because that is his game, putting his opponent’s fitness to the test and having the confidence and mental stamina to be the last one standing. One of Nadal’s biggest weapons is that topspin. If he can dictate points with his forehand, he’ll win those points more often than not.
— Tripp Conner (@emconner13) May 31, 2022
Rafa will need to use his complete game by coming to the net, utilizing the drop shot, and throwing in the serve-and-volley. It’s about using variety and keeping his opponent guessing. Finally, Nadal needs to be consistent. He played nearly perfect tennis to defeat Djokovic in the quarterfinal, but before that match he was mis-hitting his backhand, overhitting his forehand, and even had some shanks. Those mistakes nearly led to a fourth-round upset to Felix Auger Aliassime.
How Zverev can win
Zverev’s biggest weapon is his serve, and he needs — first and foremost — to hold his serve. This tournament, he is averaging 11 aces per match and a 70% win rate on on first serves. He needs to knock those first serves in, get some free points, and keep the double faults to a minimum. The German also needs to test Nadal’s backhand often, which is how he was able to defeat rising star Carlos Alcaraz in the quarterfinal. The backhand wasn’t there for Carlitos, and Zverev recognized that and attacked. Unlike Nadal, Zverev needs to end points quickly, and he can do so by getting off the baseline and coming into the net after aggressive approach shots. If Zverev can keep his returns deep, apply pressure constantly and hold serve, he can contend.
Casper Ruud (-235) vs. Marin Cilic (+190)
Game spread: 4
Game total: OV/UN 38.5
The second semifinal match is the more interesting one to me. Ruud has been on the verge of a breakout with eight titles — seven on clay — though all at the ATP 250 level. In majors, Ruud holds a 14-13 record, with his best showing being a Round of 16 run in the 2021 Australian Open, but he retired to Andrey Rublev. However, he did reach the finals this year in the ATP Masters 1000 Miami, losing to Alcaraz in straight sets. He followed that up with a semifinal loss to Djokovic in straight sets in Rome.
Marin Cilic, on the other hand, has a 130-54 record in majors and is now the fifth active man to reach a semifinal in all four majors, with one major win on his resume: the 2014 U.S. Open, where he beat Roger Federer en route.
How Ruud can win
Like Nadal, Ruud needs to extend rallies, putting the 6-foot-6 Cilic’s fitness to the test. Ruud needs to put more shape on the ball with that topspin and not hit flat. By doing so, it takes time away from his opponents to reposition themselves for a cleaner, more aggressive shot. What Cilic has is his serve, but if Ruud can just put his return into play, that is key. If the Norwegian can avoid trying to out-power Cilic and put placement on his serves to pull Cilic out of position, he can certainly reach the biggest milestone of his career.
How Cilic can win
Cilic needs to hold serve. He had 33 aces in his five-set win over Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinal. Those free points are key. What makes Cilic so threatening is his aggression. He needs to be aggressive at all times from the baseline and avoid playing passive tennis and not get in long rallies against Ruud. Instead, Cilic should look to hit the edges of the court, focus on angled shots, and just play high-risk, high-reward tennis at all times. He’s been here before. The experience is to his benefit after knocking off world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev in straight sets in the fourth round.
French Open semifinal best bet
Can I dodge one and say, “Just be a fan?" No? OK. This is an exciting semifinal for me, but what I know best is the previous generation of tennis players, and I’m sticking with my guy Cilic. Ruud is absolutely fantastic and deserving of a final spot on his best surface, but it’s Cilic’s time to shine.
He has the experience, has overcome mental challenges to be here and is fully capable of keeping that serve as his key weapon.
Best bet: Cilic +1.5 sets (-105) and sprinkle some of the 2-1 moneyline
I love Cilic to win at least one set but at -275, I would have to parlay it with another leg. Pairing with a Nadal moneyline at (-130) could be the way to go, but I trust that this big of a stage is going to test Ruud’s ability to close in four or better.
Full transparency: I have yet to place a wager but most certainly I’m putting my trust in Cilic. He could have a more impressive resume if it weren't for tennis' Big 3. He’s got this.