<
>

Men's semifinals set at Australian Open 2020: Experts make their picks for Federer-Djokovic, Zverev-Thiem

play
Federer saves seven match points, receives obscenity warning in bizarre match (2:51)

Roger Federer holds off Tennys Sandgren in a five-set match, defending seven match points and earning an obscenity warning en route to a 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-3 win. (2:51)

The men's semifinals are set for the 2020 Australian Open. It will be old-school on one side of the draw, with 20-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer taking on Big Three rival Novak Djokovic, who sits at 16 Slam wins, seven of which have come in Melbourne.

On the other side, you've got the new-schoolers; Dominic Thiem, who will be playing in his first hard-court Slam semifinal, vs. Alexander Zverev, who has reached his first Slam semi ever.

Our experts break down the two exciting matchups:

Thursday: Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic (3:30 a.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App)

play
2:59

Thiem stuns Nadal to reach semifinals

Dominic Thiem knocks out Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open quarterfinals to reach the final four.

Federer has had to work harder for his victories this fortnight. Why?

ESPN tennis reporter Peter Bodo: Call me a skeptic, or a grump; but in my experience, you actually can't have it all, at least not forever. And as much as I admire and respect Federer, and stand in awe of the way he's walked this triangular tightrope strung between career and family and age, it can't have lasted forever. The game is just too demanding. Federer is already in a kind of farewell tour mode, happily refusing to make the kinds of sacrifices he once made for career, and we're at the point where it's beginning to show. It's fine. He doesn't owe tennis a dime, and I hope he sticks around as long as he's having fun.

ESPN tennis contributor Simon Cambers: Two reasons. He's 38, and the conditions -- courts and balls -- seem to have been slower than ever. He's also played a couple of grinders in John Millman and Tennys Sandgren, who made life very hard for him, while his timing has not quite been there.

ESPN tennis analyst Darren Cahill: The conditions have been slower, much slower. It's also been cooler this year, so it's been much tougher to get the ball through the court. Most players have been saying it's harder to finish points; so for a guy who likes finishing points, it's been a more difficult tournament. He just hasn't been able to play that aggressive type of tennis.

ESPN tennis analyst Chris Evert: He played two hot players, so credit to them. Millman and Sandgren had no pressure and could go out there and just fire balls at Roger. They knew he wasn't as invincible as, say, five years ago. They all have a little bit of belief they can beat him, so their mindsets have improved and they just go out and play their best tennis. On the other hand, Roger has gone in and out a little bit. He's 38 and it's hard to have that intensity every single point when you've played for 20 years on the tour. The freshness factor is not there, at all. It's probably a combination. Mentally, Roger has probably lost a slight edge, and these other guys believe they can beat him. It's the same thing when players play Serena.

ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert: Well, he's 38! He's actually had a great draw, but he's had to scrap. He found a way against Millman, but he was a little tired against Marton Fucsovics [in the fourth round] in the first set but found a way. I've never sat courtside and heard him grunting as loud as he was. Against Sandgren, you probably lose that match 99.999 out of 100, but somehow he found a way and that's the sign of a great player. The four most valuable words in tennis are "game," "set," "match" and your name. Everyone gets bogged down thinking it always has to be perfect, but sometimes it's not.

ESPN tennis reporter D'Arcy Maine: Because he's getting older and starting to become slightly more human. However, it's not how you start, it's how you finish, and he has found a way to win in some of the tightest of situations throughout this tournament. Just ask Tennys "Seven match points" Sandgren or Millman. Federer is still good enough where he can dig himself out of holes, which would be impossible for virtually anyone else.

What will be Fed's game plan against Djokovic?

Bodo: His only chance, all other things being equal, will be to do everything in his power to avoid long baseline duels; that means attacking, playing lots of chip-and-charge, slowing down the pace with cut backhands and drop shots. It will take Fabrice Santoro-grade deftness combined with a marksman's serving (at a 70% conversion rate or better) to discombobulate Djokovic.

Cambers: The only way he can win this is if he attacks. He has to serve at his best and is going to need to come forward as much as he can. Djokovic has looked so impressive and Federer knows he can't beat him from the back.

Cahill: It really depends on how he feels. If he's 100%, then you can go back to the match they played on the World Tour finals. Different court, but same type of tactics. He'll try to serve well, keep the points short, try to keep Novak off balance; it's going to be a difficult assignment to do that, because of the way Novak's playing and the way he always plays in Australia, but he's got to play risky tennis to upset Novak.

Evert: He has to come out a different player when he plays Novak. He doesn't want to get into any long, drawn-out rallies. The first three or four shots, he's going to have to find an opportunity to end the point with his shot-making and concentrate so much on his serve and hope to get a lot of first serves in. On the return, he has to take advantage of those second serves, maybe play a little bit aggressive and take some risks. We'll see him coming into the net a little more than against other players because it's Djokovic and he doesn't want to rally from the baseline. He's going to have to get off to a quick start and win the first set.

Gilbert: It's all about whether or not he's healthy. If he's not healthy, he's massively up against it. He played the best I've seen him play in maybe 10 years, at London against Novak -- even better than he played at Wimbledon. The level at which Djokovic played last night, and the level he played the last three matches last year, no one has ever played the game better. Plain and simple. When he's at that level, he's unbeatable. If Djokovic is at that level, it doesn't matter what anyone is going to do. I'd be really shocked if Djokovic isn't getting six sets from here.

Maine: Federer will need to play, and serve, near flawlessly to pull off a win. He did just that in their meeting at the ATP Finals in November, and he'll have to try to re-create everything he did that day to the best of his ability. Of course, that was a best-of-three sets and indoors, but still it has to help Federer mentally heading into this match. With extreme heat in the forecast, Federer's serve could become a major factor, and that's good news for the Swiss superstar.

The all-time Slams record hangs over both players for different reasons. Will this affect their mindsets heading into the match?

Bodo: I don't believe the hunt for the record plays into this at all in an immediate sense. It's there like a steady hum in the background, but they don't look that far ahead, just like they don't look forward to the final before they play in the semis.

Cambers: I doubt it. Federer will be most concerned about being as close to 100% as possible after his groin issue, while Djokovic just looks to be on a mission. He simply wants to win the title, rather than chase a number.

Cahill: Not at all. They are here at the Australian Open to win the Australian Open. I don't think they're thinking about that at all in-tournament.

Evert: When they have weeks off and are away from tournaments, maybe they will think about it a little bit then. During a match? No. That will only be a distraction, and they're going to want to keep their focus as much as possible on that match and who they're playing. They are both experienced enough to realize that, if they are thinking about numbers, it will just be a distraction.

Gilbert: Roger, Rafa and Novak are three awesome competitors who have inspired each other to greater heights. What they say to the press and what they really mean, how do we know? Five years from now, we'll really know the answer. Hardcore Fed fans will never say anyone else's accomplishments are better. I appreciate all three of them.

Maine: Even though they always say it doesn't, it's hard to think it couldn't be in both of their heads entering every major tournament. One would have to think it would impact Federer more, however, as he knows his time is more limited, and he hasn't won a Slam title since 2018. But it's likely his most recent Slam final against Djokovic, last year at Wimbledon, will weigh on him more than anything, and he'll have to find a way to tune that out and simply focus on the match at hand. Thank you for not asking how he will do that.

The shot to watch for both players?

Bodo: For Djokovic, it will come down to his return. Federer is perhaps the best spot server in the game, while Djokovic is the best returner, perhaps ever. If Djokovic can handle Federer's most lethal serves with those familiar, penetrating returns that get Federer on his back foot, nothing else will matter. While serving well will be essential for Federer, there's no question he will have to play plenty of points from the baseline. That means his forehand will have to be rock solid if he hopes to win enough rally points to compete.

Cambers: Federer's serve. If the pace is not up and accuracy is not there, he can't win. For Djokovic, his returns are always great, and also his serve, which is underrated. He'll want to keep Federer pinned back.

Cahill: For Federer, he needs the backhand working well, especially the backhand down the line when he gets an opportunity to hit that. It can't be just one shot for Roger. He needs to be serving well, the way he served in London, where he got an incredible amount of free points from Novak. With Novak, he's going to be doing exactly what he's been doing throughout the event because the conditions, court, surface -- everything about this tournament is like playing in his backyard. He's got an incredible amount of confidence when he steps onto this court, he barely makes any unforced errors, and the more pressure there is in a moment, the better he plays. He has unbelievable belief, he's serving well, he's thumping the ball from the back of the court and he's actually transitioning to the net at the right times, which makes him the toughest player to beat in the men's game.

Evert: Serve for Roger. That's going to be crucial. Consistency for Djokovic is going to be the most important for him.

Gilbert: On this surface, it's Novak's ability to instantly turn defense into offense. His return of serve, he can float it back and then instantly take off. That's why he's so good on this surface. Roger has to be 120% on his serve. He needs to be able to get free points and get serve, first-ball winners.

Maine: Every shot will matter when it comes to these two, but, Federer's serve and Djokovic's return of serve.

Prediction?

Bodo: Out of respect, let's give an on-fire Federer the first set; but Djokovic will reel him in with increasing ease in four sets.

Cambers: Djokovic, in straight sets.

Cahill: Novak is going to go in as a favorite. I wouldn't be surprised if it's a pretty close one; but over the course of five sets, and the fact Novak seems like he grows an extra leg on this court, I would tip Novak to win. Four sets.

Evert: Djokovic, in four sets.

Gilbert: Straight sets, Novak. I might think differently if Roger was 100%.

Maine: Djoko ... Fed ... Djokovic shows off his "Mamba Mentality," in honor of his mentor Kobe Bryant, and takes it in four.

Friday: Alexander Zverev vs. Dominic Thiem (3:30 a.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App)

What has been the difference for Zverev in reaching his first career Slam semifinal?

Bodo: It seems like just yesterday Zverev was pitching fits as he double-faulted his way through three losses during the ATP Cup, adding to the fears that, after one of the most promising starts to an ATP career, the original Next Gen poster boy was flaming out. But he has completed a dramatic turnaround at this tournament. He has sorted out his serving problems and attributes his success in Melbourne to coming in with no expectations whatsoever. He has felt no pressure to perform at a major, he has said, and that's allowed him to find his game.

Cambers: His serve. Coming into the Australian Open, it had been an absolute liability but somehow seemingly he's fixed it, with just 11 double faults in five matches. Maybe it's the suggestion by Belinda Bencic to donate money per double fault that's done it.

Cahill: He's done a remarkable job from where he was at the ATP Cup a couple of weeks ago, spending up to six hours a day on the court before the Australian Open to get through the issues in his game. As he said in an on-court interview here, it wasn't just one thing. Everyone has been concentrating on the serve, but he wasn't playing well from the back of the court, or feeling the returns -- emotionally, he was a little unsettled. To package that all up and play the way he's played here, I take my hat off to him. Right before our eyes we're seeing Alexander maturing, finding ways to deal with issues in his game and problem-solving. That speaks really well for the future -- not just for this tournament, but certainly for 2020 and beyond. He's going to win Grand Slams, there's no question in my mind.

Evert: The serve. Everyone was talking about it last year, "What happened to his serve?" He was double-faulting, getting the yips, and that was one of the reasons he was losing a lot of matches. When he gets his first serve in, his whole game blossoms and then he gets more confident in his groundstrokes.

Gilbert: Double faults. In the ATP Cup, he had 31 in six sets. He didn't win any of them. Here, he's won 12 sets and had just 10 double faults. I did a match last year in Cincinnati where he had 24 double faults in it and still got to the third set. He's serving really well at the moment. He's moving well and playing confidently.

Maine: After his win against Stan Wawrinka, he said he previously had been too focused on the Slams and put too high of expectations on himself going in. He claimed he didn't do that this time around, and clearly playing without the added pressure is working out well. He needs to keep himself loose and relaxed, as much as possible anyway, heading into his first major semifinal match to have a chance.

What have you seen so far as positives and negatives to Thiem's game in Melbourne?

Bodo: Over the past few months, going back to his coaching change to Nicolas Massu, Thiem has rounded out his game, transforming himself from a predictable (if not devastating) metronomic baseliner into a player capable of attacking and playing touch shots and volleys. It has paid off for him in a big way, as he demonstrated in his win against Rafael Nadal. The other outstanding quality has been Thiem's commitment to his mission. Despite being cast as a poor man's Nadal, destined for runner-up status, he has worked diligently to improve on all surfaces to become a top-notch player./p>

Cambers: His aggression. Against Nadal, in particular, he served well and has returned well too, standing tighter to the baseline at times and throwing himself at almost every ball. He's as good an athlete as anyone out there too.

Cahill: Thiem brings a different set of problems to most players because he's so heavy and hits the ball so hard from the back of the court, and you have to deal with that. With warmer conditions now than what we had earlier in the tournament, his ball is going to fly a little bit more, which makes it more challenging. If Dominic brings it to the level we know he can, it could be a cracking match.

Evert: I'm always pulling for Thiem. I like his game and attitude out there. To me, he's a pretty humble guy. I don't know if he is going to be as effective on the hard courts as he has been on clay, twice reaching the French Open finals. He's probably a little more comfortable on the clay. But anyone who gets to the quarterfinals in the second week has to be playing well and have a lot of belief and confidence.

Gilbert: He's serving huge. He plays so similar to Stan, you think of his beautiful backhand, but no one hits the forehand bigger than him. If he can control play, watch out.

Maine: Confidence. Confidence. Confidence. It seems Thiem has finally found something inside of himself to transform from a fourth-rounder at Melbourne, as he's been twice previously, to a semifinalist. He's had the self-belief on clay for some time, but it's finally found its way to the hard court. Not to mention, he was previously 0-5 against Nadal in majors, on all surfaces, before Wednesday's quarterfinal victory. He had the tools to beat the superstar on the biggest stage.

The shot to watch for both players?

Bodo: Given Zverev's recent serving woes, it will be imperative for him to continue to bring the heat and use his serve as a weapon to keep Thiem from taking control of the rallies. Conversely, the quality of Thiem's serve return could play a big role in the outcome. If he can be aggressive there, he will be able to keep Zverev on his back foot and then put those punishing forehands and one-handed backhands into play.

Cambers: Zverev's serve. If it's firing, the first serve is massive, and with his height, he can also get acute angles to get Thiem on the run. Thiem's backhand is the money shot, but he will need to serve intelligently against Zverev, who will stand way back behind the baseline. A few serve-and-volley plays might do the trick too.

Cahill: The serve for Alexander is the main thing -- keep an eye on that. If he continues to serve the way he's serving, with a first-serve percentage up at around 80, and cut out the double faults, his whole game picks up. For Dominic, it's hard to say because not one thing is going to determine whether he wins or loses. It's a whole range of problem-solving. It's going to be incredibly physical from the back of the court. From day to day, you're never quite sure how you're going to feel and how you'll wake up, you might have a little niggling injury. There are so many variables in a Grand Slam that need to go the right way.

Evert: Zverev, has to be the serve. Thiem, it wouldn't be a shot but a belief. He's got a very consistent game, but he's not going to blow you off the court with any one shot.

Gilbert: The Thiem forehand, for sure. Everyone thinks about the backhand. Zverev, the serve.

Maine: It's all about the backhands here -- the one-hander from Thiem and the two-hander from Zverev.

Prediction?

Bodo: Thiem has already played two Grand Slam finals, losing to Nadal in back-to-back French Open finals. He knows what to expect. He's also won what is arguably the most significant hard-court title outside the majors (Indian Wells). He has the ability to hit through Zverev's defenses and will win a spot in the final.

Cambers: Thiem. If he plays as well as he did against Nadal, he wins.

Gilbert: Liking Thiem in four sets.

Maine: It would be fun to see Zverev reach his first major final, especially considering he has pledged his winning payday to Australian bushfire relief; but anyone who beats Nadal the way Thiem did gets the edge in my book. Thiem in five.