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Roberto Bautista Agut Joins the Big 3 in the Wimbledon Semifinals


WIMBLEDON, England — Roberto Bautista Agut came to Wimbledon this year with big plans — none of which involved reaching the semifinals. At 31, the Spanish baseliner had never made it past the fourth round at the All England Club before, and he did not expect that pattern to change. He planned to be on an island in the Mediterranean this week, enjoying his bachelor party.

“We had everything organized,” Bautista said Wednesday after beating Guido Pella, 7-5, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, in a quarterfinal on No. 1 Court. “My friends, six of them, are all there.”

The sunny beaches of Ibiza can wait. Instead Bautista, seeded No. 23, will keep company with the Big Three of men’s tennis on Friday, meeting Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, in one semifinal, with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal facing off in the other.

“It feels better to be in London,” Bautista said, noting that he expected his friends to be there, too, moving the party to the site of Friday’s match.

Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have a combined 53 Grand Slam singles titles; Bautista will be in his first Grand Slam semifinal.

He beat Pella, the 26th seed and another dedicated baseliner, in a groundstroke battle that reflected how much the grass surface at Wimbledon has slowed since the days when the serve-and-volley ruled.

Their quarterfinal was largely devoid of aggressive forward thrust or stunning points, filled instead with steady, grinding rallies between competitors who mirrored each other in guts and played as if they had a phobia about the net.

Bautista and Pella entered the quarterfinals with great confidence. Bautista had not lost a set in the tournament, and he said he was feeling the fruits of the many years he had toiled to improve his game.

“My shots are really, really low,” he said of his playing style, how the low bouncing balls he typically hits are well suited to Wimbledon.

Pella, a 29-year-old from Argentina, reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal by defeating the 2018 Wimbledon finalist Kevin Anderson in the third round and the 2016 finalist Milos Raonic in the next. Those two are among the most forceful players on tour, always looking to come to the net and clip off winning volleys.

In days gone by — the days of slick, quick Wimbledon grass — a middle-ranked groundstroker like Pella would have had little chance of posting back-to-back wins over such aggressive players.

But the courts used in professional tennis have lost much of their variation over the last decade or so. These days Melbourne plays pretty much the same as Miami, which plays similarly to the courts in Doha and Stockholm. Even with its relatively distinctive surface, Wimbledon is not immune.

“It’s much slower,” Pella said of the grass at Wimbledon. “I think the matches are more playable than in other years. You can play from the baseline without any problem. It was much easier for us to move, to play like a clay court.”

Case in point: While Bautista dictated play Wednesday with his hard, flat, metronomic groundstrokes, only rarely did he move forward. In a match that featured 273 total points, he ended up at the net only 26 times, usually when forced by a mis-hit or drop shot. That’s an expected stat line on the red clay at the French Open, not here.

Baseline players have won Wimbledon, but each of them — from Bjorn Borg to Chris Evert to Nadal — has looked to press forward and end points faster than Bautista did.

Nadal didn’t end up at the net very often either in his quarterfinal win over Sam Querrey on Wednesday, but he pressed the action forward, engaging in only seven rallies of nine or more shots. By contrast Bautista and Pella played 39 such rallies, many lasting far longer than nine shots.

Talk of playing style is one thing. At this point, all that really matters is winning, and Djokovic sounded extremely confident Wednesday after beating David Goffin, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2, on Centre Court.

“I’ve been playing my best tennis in this tournament in the last two rounds, fourth round and today,” said Djokovic, whose match lasted just under two hours. “I felt like I managed to dismantle his game.”

Heading into Friday’s match, Bautista can lean on the fact that he has two wins over Djokovic in 2019.

However the first, in Doha, Qatar, came in early January, just after the winter break. And the second, in Miami, came as Djokovic was dealing with burnout after winning the Australian Open.

Pella was asked what he would say if he were coaching Bautista for the semifinal.

Be more aggressive, he said, and keep Djokovic’s pounding service returns at bay.

And this: “He cannot miss a single ball.”


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