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Karen Khachanov of Russia in action against Alexander Zverev of Germany during their quarter final match at the Rolex Paris Masters tennis tournament in Paris, France, 02 November 2018.  EPA-EFE/IAN LANGSDON



By Ricky Dimon


Much unlike last year, the Nitto ATP Finals field is already set (barring some possible withdrawals) heading into the Rolex Paris Masters semifinals. But there will be plenty of interest in the action–especially in another showdown between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Dominic Thiem and Karen Khachanov are also aiming for a place in the title match.


Ricky previews the two matches and makes his predictions:


(6) Dominic Thiem vs. Karen Khachanov

Surprisingly, Dominic Thiem and Karen Khachanov will be going head-to-head for the very first time in their careers on Saturday. Either way the matchup will produce an unexpected finalist, as Khachanov has never been to a Masters 1000 final and Thiem has never reached a Masters 1000 title match on a hard court.


That is not to say that Khachanov’s run has come out of nowhere. The 22-year-old is up to a career-high ranking of 18th in the world and he will reach at least No. 13 even if he loses to Thiem. Khachanov is sporting a 44-22 record for his 2018 campaign following Paris victories over Filip Krajinovic, Matthew Ebden, John Isner, and Alexander Zverev. He outlasted Isner 6-4, 6-7(9), 7-6(8) before taking advantage of a hobbled Zverev 6-1, 6-2 in the quarters.


“I’m just enjoying playing good tennis right now,” Khachanov explained. “Especially the past couple of months. After winning Moscow, honestly, in Vienna it was tough for me to play, emotionally. I’m playing confidently.”


Thiem is picking up some much-needed hard-court confidence in advance of the Nitto ATP Finals (he clinched a spot on Friday). A borderline clay-court specialist, the eighth-ranked Austrian has played a smarter schedule this season and has kept himself fresh for the fall hard-court swing. He recently triumphed in St. Petersburg and so far in Paris has defeated Gilles Simon, a red-hot Borna Coric, and defending champion Jack Sock.


Although Thiem is suddenly playing well indoors, the surface still favors Khachanov–who has been in slightly superior form throughout this event. The last unseeded player remaining in the draw needed only one hour and 10 minutes to oust Zverev, while Thiem is coming off difficult three-setters against both Coric and Sock.

Pick: Khachanov in 3


(3) Roger Federer vs. (2) Novak Djokovic

Djokovic and Federer will be facing each other for the 47th time in their careers. The head-to-head series stands at 24-22 in favor of Djokovic, who is 3-0 in their last three contests dating back to the title match of the 2015 World Tour Finals. The two all-time greats have faced each other just once this season, with Djokovic triumphing 6-4, 6-4 to win the Cincinnati Masters for the first time.


Djokovic’s Cincinnati win was part of a seismic mid-year shift on the ATP World Tour, as Federer and Rafael Nadal dominated the first half of 2018–seemingly on their way to a two-man race for the No. 1 ranking. Since the start of the grass-court swing, however, it was been all Djokovic. Buoyed by titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Djokovic will regain the top spot from Nadal following this week’s festivities even if he loses to Federer.


Since falling to Marin Cilic in the Queen’s Club final, the Serb is an amazing 30-1 in his last 31 matches. The 14-time major champion is 8-0 since the U.S. Open, with a title at the Shanghai Masters and Paris defeats of Joao Sousa, Damir Dzumhur (via second-set retirement), and Cilic.


A minor slump by Federer’s standards saw him fall to Kevin Anderson in the Wimbledon quarters, Djokovic in Cincinnati, John Millman in the U.S. Open fourth round, and Coric in the Shanghai SFs. Although the Swiss was rarely at his best last week in Basel, he still managed to capture a ninth title at his home event. Federer has maintained momentum in Paris with straight-set victories over Fabio Fognini and Kei Nishikori after getting a walkover from Milos Raonic.


“I think for me it was really important to go through two sets and not get broken,” the 37-year-old said after getting the best of Nishikori 6-4, 6-4. “Winning straight sets is always nice. It saves energy for not only what is to come tomorrow or the following week, but for your career. That’s why you could be more successful if you win quick matches. I’ve done that well throughout my career and it was nice to get one again tonight.


“I want to play well,” Federer said of the upcoming showdown with Djokovic. “I know he’s on a hot streak so I think it’s going to be tough. But nevertheless I think I’ve got nothing to lose. I also like this type of surface; I like playing indoors. Indoors has treated me very well, winning Rotterdam and Basel (this season). I think I’m ready to do something tomorrow.””I’m just pleased to be in the semis,” Djokovic assured. “I know I can play better. At times [against Cilic] I was playing really well; at times, not that great. So there are things that I have to obviously improve for the next one, and I’m looking forward to it.”

The soon-to-be world No. 1 should have an edge from the baseline against Federer, just as he does against everyone else these days. If his service return–which is the best in the game–can once again neutralize the 37-year-old’s serve, Djokovic may come out on top in what will likely be a more competitive contest than what transpired in Cincinnati.

Pick: Djokovic in 3

Ricky contributes to 10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @TennGrand.

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