What a way to wrap up the final weekend of the clay court season with the undisputed four best tennis players in the world battling for a spot in the French Open semifinals. It’s hard to get much better than what we have on Friday with Rafael Nadal locking up with Andy Murray followed by the big showdown between the streaking Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
As for my picks, I’ll start with the easy one first. Murray’s had a fairytale run in Paris but that’s going to end tomorrow against Nadal. In a best-of-3 format I’d give Murray a real chance but not over five sets and not with what could be a damaged ankle.
To his credit, Murray has played his best clay court tennis of his career the last 45 days and sounds confident at least against Rafa. But the Scot has never beaten Nadal on clay and overall he trails 10-4.
And if Nadal shows up like he did against Robin Soderling he’ll cruise through. However, if the “other” Rafa shows up – the one who makes uncharacteristic errors and serves poorly – things could get dicey for the Spaniard.
“He’s doing great,” Nadal said on Wednesday. “Right now he is in semifinals having tough match against Troicki the other day saving important moments. So he’s coming with confidence, and will be a very difficult match for me in semifinals.
“He has all the shots. He can defend very well. He can attack very well. He runs fantastic. The only thing that you can beat him is playing at very, very high level. It not gonna be impossible. That’s what I gonna try.”
Well, that’s the humble Rafa talking again. While Murray is a capabale player, truth is he’s had a great draw.
For Murray to win he’ll have be offensive and not hope the other player gets nervous (like Viktor Troick or Juan Ignacio Chela). Unlike Troicki who was unable to cash in big leads, if you give Nadal a break edge fuhgetaboutit because your going home. It’s that simple.
“He’s still playing pretty good, so I know Rafa will play excellent tennis against me on Friday,” Murray said. “Pretty much every time we’ve played we’ve had some really good matches and he’s always played well. Even in practice he plays well against me, so I don’t expect him to play badly on Friday.”
So Murray will have to serve well and take advantage of Rafa’s weaker second serve. He’ll also need to avoid floating balls in the middle of court and into Rafa’s strikezone. I also think he needs to go after Rafa’s forehand with his backhand cross court. Even better than Murray’s groundstrokes are his hands and I feel tomorrow he’ll use them to bring Nadal to the net with a steady diet of dropshots. Still, I just don’t think it will be enough. So I’m taking Nadal in straight sets. He’s not going to lose on his 25th birthday, is he?
Nadal winning the first match will add to the plot of the second semifinal. If Nadal does win it will mean that Djokovic will have to beat Federer to reach No. 1. Can he do it? Of course he can.
Djokovic has beaten Federer three times already this year in Australia, Dubai and at Indian Wells which went three sets. Novak also beat Roger in that memorable 5-set thriller in New York six months ago. But things have changed in a big way since that US Open clash.
Djokovic comes in playing impeccable tennis riding a 43-match win streak with 13 wins against his fellow Top 10 colleagues. Meanwhile Federer hasn’t won a title since the start of the year and didn’t have a great clay season. But the Swiss, as he does so often, turned it on at the Grand Slams and this week he’s the only player to reach the semifinals without losing a set.
And with Djokovic having a full four days off maybe, just maybe, his rhythm gets thrown off.
As for the matchup, for Federer to win he has to play near perfect tennis and he has to serve well. If Federer serves a low percentage of first serves he’ll lose in straight sets against someone as hot as Djokovic.
I think Federer will play aggressive and he will make some mistakes, which is okay, but he just can’t make too many of them. And while Federer may not be at the level he was a few years ago, I think he still has the smarts to formulate a good gameplan with coach Paul Annacone to take down Djokovic. I just don’t know if he can execute on that.
“For me, the plan is trying to get a step further and into the finals of the French Open,” Federer said. “At the end of the day, that’s, for me, the big picture, and that’s why I entered the French Open. It wasn’t to stop Novak.”
For Djokovic, it’s business as usual. Jump on short balls, take control of the point with the return of serve and target the Federer backhand. I expect Federer to be aggressive on the return so Novak will have to serve well, though his defense is so strong right now it may not make that much of a difference.
That all said, I do give Roger a chance. The guy is a champion and in this matchup he’s the underdog. And we’ve seen guys like Federer rise up when we just don’t expect and in this one the pressure really isn’t on Roger.
“I think there’s less at stake for me than for him,” the Swiss said. “He’s got a lot of things going on for him. Sure, I’d love to be again in the Grand Slam final because I haven’t achieved that in a few slams. But nothing major for me as long as I, you know, keep on giving myself chances. I think I’m playing really well again.
“But now I can really play the way I was hoping to play here at the French Open, and I’m able to show it. I’ll give everything I have, and then we’ll talk about it later.”
And with Djokovic just six sets from history I have to think he’ll see this story through and take down Federer. As much as my gut tells me somehow Federer will win, the numbers, the matchup and the situation all point in favor of Novak. I’m taking Djokovic in straight sets.
Tennis Channel comes on live at 8am ET with Nadal-Murray then hands off to NBC for live coverage of Djokovic-Federer. That’s right, both matches LIVE. It’s should be a great day of tennis. Enjoy it everyone!
Court Philippe Chatrier 2:00 PM Start Time
Rafael Nadal (ESP) v. Andy Murray (GBR)
Roger Federer (SUI) v. Novak Djokovic (SRB)
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