We are just three Fridays from the French Open semifinals. If I could peer into a crystal ball I’d have to think they’d look a lot like the semifinals do at the Rome Tennis Masters tomorrow. And that’d be fantastic. In the final big clay event before Roland Garros, the last four standing at the Foro Italico are also the four best claycourters in the world: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer.
All four eased into the semifinals today without losing a set. Nadal overcame a second break deficit to deny tje dangerous Tomas Berdych 6-4, 7-5. Djokovic fought through a tough first set and finished off JW Tsonga 7-5, 6-1. Ferrer gave Richard Gasquet a lesson on the clay, edging the Frenchman 7-6, 6-3; and, Federer crushed an exhausted Andreas Seppi 6-1, 6-2.
So the semifinal pairings are set and it’s Nadal-Ferrer, Federer-Djokovic.
First up, it’s a battle between the two best Spain has to offer. Nadal leads Ferrer 14-4 in their meetings having won 11 straight on clay including a tough 7-6, 7-5 victory in the Barcelona final.
If we throw out the Madrid event – like Rafa would like us to do – Nadal’s 13-0 on the (red) clay this year winning all 26 sets. And while those numbers are eyepopping (they are), I don’t think he’s at the level on the clay we’ve seen from him in the past. He’s serving better but I he’s making so a few extra errors here and there and his forehand doesn’t look as dominant as I’ve seen in the past. So despite his impressive record I feel there are some cracks, but I just don’t know if Ferrer can find and exploit them.
“You know that to play David I will run and fight a lot and I have to play better than in Barcelona,” Nadal said. “I don’t stop and its very difficult to play against him because he pushes all the time and I think I can do it and it is normal to lose a set and to lose a set against David is terrible. He is very high level. I know I have to play my best tennis like today — to the limit and tomorrow is another day and I will do it. In this tournament it is normal …. all the best players are here.”
Plus, as I said after the Madrid mishap Nadal has to be out for blood this week. And while he may wobble a bit against Ferrer, perhaps even losing a set, I still think he gets to Sunday.
In the nightime blockbuster, Federer and Djokovic renew their rivalry. And it’s been a long time coming. In their last meeting Djokovic hit the “forehand heard around the world” in saving a matchpoint to stun Federer in the US Open semifinals last September. Federer did get on top of Novak in their previous 2011 meeting ending Djokovic’s 43-match win streak by beating him in final four at the French Open.
This time, Djokovic just isn’t the same player. And Federer, while not at his epic best, appears to be in better form. Federer also leads 14-10 but Djokovic won four of five last season.
As for a pick, this one is tough. Having already advanced Federer (in my mind), I gave the Swiss the edge after watching Novak struggle in that first set against Tsonga. But Djokovic ran away with the second, so maybe he’s got some edge, some form back(?).
Meanwhile, Federer’s enjoyed three creampuff wins and if not for a 20 minute walkabout against Juan Carlos Ferrero, he’s looked incredibly sharp. But playing three guys will little to offer – Carlos Berlocq, Ferrero and today Seppi – will make many players look good. It’s like he’s been hitting against a ball machine all week, and sometimes that’s a good thing especially for Federer who’s groundstrokes have to now be in rhythm if they weren’t already!
I initially picked a Federer-Nadal final and I’m actually going to stick with it here. Djokovic really, really needs this win over Federer and IU expect him to raise his level to the challenge, but Roger beat him last year in Paris and should have beaten him at the US Open, so I’ll take him in Rome as well. But it’s a coin flip.
“Tomorrow, I’ve got a chance against Djokovic,” Federer said. “I’m looking forward to that match. It’s another night session. I’m happy I’m playing so well on the court.”
In the women’s semifinals, the red-hot Serena Williams meets 2011 French Open champion Li Na and then it’s Angelique Kerber against Maria Sharapova. I think we are looking a Madrid rematch, aren’t we?
“Li Na is the defending French Open champion,” Serena said. “She’s great to test yourself against because she’s a good all-round player and she’s so fit.”
“I’ve watched Serena play many matches over the years on TV,” Li Na said. “She has a huge serve and she’s a great mover and I’m really looking forward to playing her, not just to win or lose, but I look forward to it as a challenge.
“I’ll just go on court and play, and try not to do anything stupid.”
Tennis Channel has live coverage of all four semifinals starting at 6am ET.
SATURDAY ROME SEMIFINALS
CENTRALE start 12:00 noon
 N Li (CHN) vs  S Williams (USA) – WTA
Not Before 1:30 PM
 A Kerber (GER) vs  M Sharapova (RUS) – WTA
Not Before 4:00 PM
 D Ferrer (ESP) vs  R Nadal (ESP) – ATP
Not Before 8:00 PM
 N Djokovic (SRB) vs  R Federer (SUI) – ATP
 M Bhupathi (IND) / R Bopanna (IND) vs M Granollers (ESP) / M Lopez (ESP) – ATP
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