by Steve Flink
PARIS— It has been an awfully long time since we have had such an enticing semifinal lineup for the men here at the world’s most prestigious clay court event on the red clay of Roland Garros. The four best players in the world have all made it to the penultimate round, and each of these competitors will approach their Friday confrontations with at least cautious optimism. Today, world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 4 Andy Murray set up their semifinal appointment with straight set victories, as Nadal cut down the always dangerous Robin Soderling 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (3), and Murray eclipsed Argentina’s 31-year-old Juan Ignacio Chela 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-2. Yesterday, Roger Federer ousted Gael Monfils in straight sets to earn his place in the “Final Four”, while Novak Djokovic advanced without striking a single ball when Italy’s Fabio Fognini was forced to default with an injury.
And so we have just the right matchups for Friday’s program, and I can’t wait to see what happens. Let’s start with Federer and Djokovic. Federer is still ahead in his career series with the Serbian 13-9, but clearly Djokovic has moved to an entirely different level this season, and he has toppled his prodigious rival three times without a loss in 2011. The first of those Djokovic victories was in the semifinals of the Australian Open back in January, and it was a terrific tennis match. Both men played an excellent first set, holding serve all the way through to set up a tie-break, which Djokovic took comfortably seven points to three. Federer seemed certain to capture the second set when he built a commanding 5-2 lead. But Djokovic proceeded to win the next five games to prevail in that set, and went on to record a 7-6, 7-5, 6-4 win.
Djokovic collected that first major title of the season, securing his second Australian Open crown by taking apart Murray in a straight set final. Djokovic and Federer confronted each other again at the end of February, and this time the Serbian found success more comfortably, coming through 6-3, 6-3 after trailing 1-3 in the second set in the final of Dubai. The most recent meeting between Federer and Djokovic was at Indian Wells, with the Serbian overcoming the Swiss 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. That was a hard fought battle that was locked at 2-2 in the final set. Federer was leading 40-15 on his serve in that fifth game, but he lost eleven points in a row from that juncture, and Djokovic was largely unerring down the stretch of his 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 triumph.
They have not played since, but unmistakably Djokovic has been the better player on clay this year. He won all three of his clay court tournaments en route to Roland Garros, including Masters 1000 titles in both Madrid and Rome. Djokovic defeated Nadal in both of those finals without the loss of a set. He looked even more masterful on the red clay than he had on the hard courts earlier in the year. To be sure, he nearly lost to Murray in the semifinals of Rome as the British standout served for the match and was two points away from winning before bowing in a final set tie-break. But the fact remains that Djokovic was very impressive on the clay, and has never looked more convincing on that surface.
As for Federer, his form on the clay has been quite good here in Paris, where he has swept 15 consecutive sets on his way to the semifinals. But in the weeks leading up to this tournament, he struggled to a large degree. In Monte Carlo, Federer was beaten in the quarters by the Austrian Jurgen Melzer, the first time he had lost to his left-handed adversary. In Madrid, Federer got to the semifinals and took a set off Nadal, but he lost that match in three sets to the Spaniard. Finally, in Rome, Federer was knocked out in the round of 16 by an inspired Richard Gasquet in a final set tie-break. Unquestionably, Federer has raised his game here, but he was never really tested in his five victories. The fact remains that he has done all that has been asked of him, and he has performed at a reasonably high level all through the tournament.
And yet, Federer will need to raise his game decidedly if he is going to succeed against Djokovic. Federer does own a 2-1 record against Djokovic on clay, but that edge is misleading. One of those wins was five years ago in Monte Carlo, the year before Djokovic moved to the forefront of the game. The second win was back in Monte Carlo two years later, and Djokovic retired when he was down 6-3, 3-2. In their most recent clay court clash, Djokovic was victorious over Federer 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the semifinals of the 2009 Italian Open in Rome. The last eleven matches since then between these two great players have been contested on hard courts, so they probably hardly remember what it was like to compete against each other on the clay.
The view here is that Djokovic should beat Federer on Friday for a number of reasons. This three wins over Federer this year will give him plenty of confidence, and the fact that he has stopped Federer in the semifinals of the last two majors is another feather in his cap. At the U.S. Open last year, Djokovic audaciously cast aside two match points against him in the fifth set with outright winners, and he won that match 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5. Interestingly, Federer turned the tables on Djokovic three times last autumn after that U.S. Open setback, ousting the Serbian in Shanghai, Basel and the ATP World Tour Finals in London, losing only one set in the process.
But, at the moment, that seems like a very long time ago. Now Djokovic has won three contests in a row against Federer at the cost of only one set, and he has developed a much deeper sense of inner security. My feeling is that he will beat Federer in four sets on Friday. Djokovic should contain Federer off the forehand, and his two-handed backhand will do more damage and hold up better than Federer’s more elegant yet less reliable one-handed stroke off that side. Federer will need to display more consistency from the backcourt than we have seen from him in a long time, and he will be facing the finest returner in tennis. Federer may enjoy being regarded as a definite underdog, and the crowd will surely be cheering his every move. Furthermore, the 29-year-old is convinced he still has what it takes to win on the biggest occasions, and these are the tournaments that spur him on more than anything else these days.
The fact remains that it is highly unlikely that Federer will get any help from Djokovic, who will make the world No. 3 work inordinately hard to finish off points. Federer is well aware that he has not been to a Grand Slam tournament final since he won his 16th Grand Slam championship back at the start of 2010 in Melbourne. Since that time, he has lost twice in the quarterfinals and twice in the semifinals, while Djokovic has been on a steady upward climb. Djokovic was upended at Roland Garros in the quarterfinals by Melzer last year, but then got to the semifinals of Wimbledon and the final of the U.S. Open, setting the stage for his big Australian Open victory this season.
This is a match of immense importance for both players. For Federer, it is a chance to recover some conviction, to put himself one match away from a second crown in Paris, to give himself the encouragement he needs to be in the thick of things at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. For Djokovic, this is an opportunity to close in on a second Grand Slam championship in a row, and to reach his first final at Roland Garros. Djokovic has won 41 matches and seven tournaments in a row this season, and altogether he has captured 43 consecutive matches since he lost to Federer in the semifinals of London last November. In his mind, he must feel he has worked too hard and played too well all year to suffer a loss to Federer at the French Open. Djokovic will come into this contest after having four days off, which is hardly what he would have wanted. But the view here is he will be more consistent than Federer from the baseline and he will handle the occasion well. That is why I see him winning that encounter.
As for Murray and Nadal, they have met 14 times across their careers, with Nadal holding a 10-4 lead head to head. Nadal has a 3-0 winning record over Murray on clay, including a 6-4, 2-6, 6-1 victory in their most recent collision in the semifinals of Monte Carlo on clay this season. That match was typical of so many Nadal-Murray clashes. The rallies were spectacular as both men covered the court stupendously. Murray was resolute and fittingly aggressive, knowing full well that he has no alternative when he plays the Spaniard other than going boldly yet purposefully for his shots and taking the right kinds of calculated risks. He did just that in Monte Carlo, and played terrific tennis over the first two sets before Nadal pulled away.
Murray and Nadal will be meeting for the first time at the French Open, but they have confronted each other at all of the other majors. As long ago as 2007, Murray pushed Nadal to five sets before losing to the Spaniard in the round of 16 at the Australian Open. Nadal won their next Grand Slam tournament meeting in the quarters of Wimbledon in 2008 with an emphatic straight set win, but Murray retaliated with a four set victory over Nadal in the semifinals of the U..S. Open that year. At the 2010 Australian Open, Murray bested Nadal in the quarters, but Nadal avenged that loss at Wimbledon last year in a well played semifinal, winning 6-4, 7-6, 6-4.
So this will be their sixth confrontation in a Grand Slam championship, and Murray has not fared badly. Nadal holds a narrow 3-2 lead in their series at the majors. To be sure, Nadal is the heavy favorite to prevail on the red clay of Paris. He has an astounding 43-1 record in this tournament, losing only to Soderling in the round of 16 two years ago. Murray has reached his first semifinal at the French Open, and has played some first rate tennis across the fortnight. He has discovered that there is no reason he can’t play great tennis on the clay. His high quality contest against Nadal in Monte Carlo followed by his crackling match with Djokovic in Rome have reinforced for Murray what he can do on the clay.
And yet, he has been playing through some difficult times since his third round match against Michael Berrer here in Paris. He injured his right ankle in that match, and then needed to recoup from two sets to love down against Viktor Troicki in the round of 16 before prevailing 7-5 in the fifth set. Troicki was serving at 5-3, 30-0 in that final set before Murray made a gallant recovery. He did not lose a set in his quarterfinal against Chela, but conceded that he did not play all that well.
Murray will inevitably elevate his game for his duel with Nadal, but his timing is not ideal. Nadal played by far his best match of the tournament in holding back the overpowering Robin Soderling. The Spaniard made only 13 unforced errors in the match, and at long last he found his range off the forehand and his ball control off the backhand was also extraordinary. Most telling of all, Nadal defended with astonishing verve and tenacity, inviting Soderling to go for too much over and over again as the Swede tried in vain to find a way to drive enough balls out of the Spaniard’s reach. Nadal seems to be moving ever closer to his peak at precisely the right time, and that is not good news for Andy Murray.
The view here is that Nadal has a chance to defeat Murray in straight sets, but it is more likely that the five time French Open champion will win that match in four sets. In any case, no matter what happens on Friday, the two men’s semifinals will provide tennis of the highest caliber as the four greatest players in the game battle it out ferociously on a stage they all love and admire.
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