French Open men's semis preview: Wawrinka-Tsonga, Djokovic-Murray
PARIS – Men's semifinal action begins on Friday at the French Open with Stan Wawrinka taking on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the first match, followed by Novak Djokovic against Andy Murray. Play begins at 7 a.m. ET on Tennis Channel, then continues on NBC at 11 a.m. Full television and broadcast schedule can be found here. Full order of play can be found here.
No. 8 Stan Wawrinka vs. No. 14 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Does Tsonga have the firepower to become the first Frenchman to make the French Open final in 25 years? Normally you'd say yes given his dynamic hitting, but after Wawrinka's powerful display to oust Roger Federer in straight sets in the quarterfinals, he might actually be outgunned on Friday.
The two 30-year-olds have split their six career meetings and their two meetings at the French Open, in 2011 and 2012, with both matches going the full five sets. Both men are big hitters but it's the backhand-to-backhand matchup that should spell the difference. Wawrinka can blast his one-handed backhand like a bazooka through the court, while Tsonga avoids hitting his two-handed backhand whenever he can.
"It's always been one of my weaknesses," Tsonga said after beating Kei Nishikori in five sets. "I don't miss many of those because I don't try many of those. I try to [run] around the ball and hit with my forehand.
"I know that my backhand shot is not my strong point with which I'm going to win the match, so I try and do what I know and the shots I know, the winners, the winning serves, so that I don't have to use my backhand and then turn around my balls so that I can hit forehands."
That's where Wawrinka can exploit the match-up. If he can consistently take the ball heavy and hard to Tsonga's backhand, he'll earn errors and short balls. If Tsonga tries to run around the shot to hit his forehand, he exposes the rest of the court and can find himself quickly out of position in the baseline rallies.
But then there's the X-factor of the occasion. When Wawrinka scored a big win over Nadal a few weeks ago in Rome, he came out the next day and played an incredibly flat match against Federer. How will he rebound emotionally and physically after his statement win in the quarterfinals? The same goes for Tsonga. He nearly choked away a two-sets to love lead over Nishikori before steeling himself to play his best tennis in the fifth set to secure an emotional win. Get ready for a Davis Cup atmosphere on Court Philippe Chatrier as the partisan crowd try and will their man towards the upset win.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 3 Andy Murray
He didn't come to Paris to beat Rafael Nadal. He came to Paris to win his first French Open title and complete his career Grand Slam. As big as his straight-set win over Nadal was in the quarterfinals, Djokovic still has some hard work to do before getting his hands on the Coupe des Mousquetaires on Sunday. For the second straight major, Djokovic's road to the title must go through Murray. The two have already faced each other three times this season, with Djokovic getting the better of Murray each time. In both the Australian Open final and Miami Open final, Djokovic won the decisive set 6-0. It's no surprise that Murray emphasized his need to stay mentally strong from first ball to last.
"[I need to] make sure I take sort of control of my own side of the net and be mentally strong out there on the court," Murray said. "I'll need to be, and accept that there is going to be if I want to win the match, it's not going to be plain sailing. That's very unlikely that you'll be comfortable physically. It will be difficult, and you need to prepare yourself mentally before you go out on to the court."
Since beating Djokovic to win Wimbledon in 2013, Murray has lost their last seven matches. As the Brit struggled with a back problem that required surgery and recovery time thereafter, Djokovic has just upgraded his game across the board. The most decisive element of their last few matches has been Djokovic's improvement on his second serve. In every match he has played in Paris so far he has won over 60% of his second serve points. In only one match, his quarterfinal against Nadal, was he broken more than once. The big ask for Murray is to serve well enough to get regular, easy holds.
The weather on Friday is forecast to crack 90 degrees with a chance of thunderstorms. The faster the conditions the better for Murray. But he'll still be the massive underdog against Djokovic, who playing the best tennis of his career right now.
"He's obviously played on Chatrier last couple of rounds, which is helpful," Murray said. "I think he goes into the match feeling good. I don't think there are any negatives that you can have from winning against someone that has won this event nine times and beating them in straight sets."