With a full 36 hours to debate the French Open men’s semifinals, let’s get right to it. To no one’s real surprise, still in the hunt for the title are the four best players on clay: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and David Ferrer.
Thus far, Nadal has been as awesome as advertised. The King of Clay hasn’t lost a set and he hasn’t lost a match in Paris since that Soderling stunner in 2009. And despite getting pushed a little today by Nicolas Almagro, Nadal is the heavy, heavy favorite to collect a seventh Roland Garros on Sunday, and do it easily.
Nadal’s greatest threat comes from Djokovic, but the Serb should count his blessings just for making it to the semifinals. Seppi had Djokovic by the throat up two sets but couldn’t finish. Then on Monday home favorite JW Tsonga held four match points and he couldn’t finish him off either. Novak’s not playing anywhere near his magnificent level of a year ago, but perhaps it’s in the cards that this is his year and makes history completing the “Djoker Slam”.
Novak will first have to get through the man who derailed his 43-match win streak a year ago in this very round, Mr. 16-time Slam champion Federer. Like Novak, Roger hasn’t look great either and he too is a bit lucky to still be spending time in Paris. Federer capitalized on what turned out to be an easy draw, then was fortunate when a red-hot Juan Martin Del Potro’s body broke down with the Argentine in command up two sets.
The party crasher in this foursome is Ferrer who is having the week of his life after beating Andy Murray today to reach his first career French Open semifinal. At 30 and in what could be his last, best shot you have to feel good about Ferrer finally making the last four in Paris. It’s a long-deserved achievement for one of the class guys of this generation. But he’ll have a mountain to climb ahead in Nadal.
Now my picks.
Rafael Nadal v. David Ferrer
The bad news for Ferrer is that he’s just 4-15 lifetime against his countryman. The worse news is he’s 1-11 against Rafa on clay, losing 11 straight including two this spring. And the horrifying news is that he now has to play said Rafa!
Nadal has been ruthless thus far and he won’t ease up against Ferrer, a competent clay courter playing in arguably the biggest match of his career. But unlike Almagro, who actually has weapons, against Nadal, Ferrer just doesn’t have that killer shot to press the lefty. And their recent scorelines indicate that. Ferrer has lost 14 straight sets (7 matches) on clay to Rafa and on Friday, unless Nadal is having a horrible day, I don’t think David is going to stop that streak.
“We [have] played each other a lot of times,” Nadal said of Ferrer. “His game bothers everybody because he’s one of the best players in the world on every surface – on clay especially. He’s a complete player. It’s very difficult to play against him, because his movement is probably the best in the world and he’s able to hit the ball very early a lot of the time.”
Nadal is right, but he just does everything better than Ferrer! And so far in the tournament he’s only dropped serve once, so he’s also serving out his you know what.
At 30, I also don’t think Ferrer is playing at his very best. He too had a good draw beating really only one quality opponent and that being Murray who may have his eyes on bigger prizes this summer. But Ferrer will show up and he’ll put the full effort in and make Rafa work. And if Nadal is making mistakes Ferrer is a guy who can take advantage.
“I will try and play a beautiful match, my best tennis,” said Ferrer about playing Rafa. “I have great ambitions, and I’m quite certain this is going to be a very physical match.
“Winning a match against Rafa is almost impossible. He is in such good shape.”
The pick: Nadal in three
Novak Djokovic v. Roger Federer
It’s the semifinal we all wanted to see again, and we got it. In their 26th meeting Federer leads 14-11 in this rivalry but it’s Djokovic with the recent edge winning five of their last six. The one loss was of course a crusher a year ago with a near-flawless Federer ending Novak’s magical win streak and denying the Serb, at that time, the No. 1 ranking.
That day Novak came out flat and Federer jumped on him and hung on. And that day Novak hadn’t played in four full days thanks to Fabio Fognini’s withdrawal. This time, Novak should be grooved, in rythym after consecutive five setters and most importantly playing with that flighty freedom having nearly lost Monday.
Not to be outdone, Federer authored his own 5-set escape in his last match after a four-setter against Goffin.
Thankfully, with two full days off both guys who have played a lot of tennis lately should be 100% fit and rested (please, no Federer back excuses!)
But what a change from a year ago when Djokovic was on his streak and Federer hadn’t lost a set en route to that showdown. This time around both guys are playing like crap – better to be lucky than be good, right?
Djokovic has been sloppy all spring, although he did look better in bursts against Tsonga. Federer still has yet to locate that “A” game of his and time is running out. In fact it’s expired. The Swiss, who has been patchy at best, will have no chance playing sub-par against Novak.
Significant to me in this series is that these two seem to play epic Grand Slam matches. We remember their clash last year in Paris. Then Novak saved two matchpoints at the US Open. And here we go again in what should be another memorable collision.
“You know, last year we were part of a great match that went the distance, and he played incredibly well,” Djokovic said. “I thought I played on a very high level. I just hope we can have another good match for us and for the crowd to be a part of. I think for me it’s crucial to be very focused and aggressive from the first moment, because that’s something that you can always expect Roger to have, you know, that control over the opponent from the start. I will try to be out there believing I can win.”
They also met a month ago and Djokovic pretty much blew out Roger. Bad back or being tired, pick your Federer excuse, but bottom line is Novak was having his way with Federer early. And really the way Federer looked that Saturday is the same he’s look all week in Paris. It’s that simple.
For me, Novak is playing better than Roger and he’s got that scary I-saved-four-matchpoints mojo thing happening which he had when he won the US Open last fall. I talked about the pressure Novak faced coming in with so much on the line, but those matchpoints saved should do wonders to ease that weight of what’s at stake for him this weekend. And that’s huge. It makes him that much more dangerous, that much more resilient. It’s a new mental dynamic. It’s got to help his mindset.
Still, I have to think Federer will raise his game – there’s no where to go but up! He’s a champion and he’s flipped that switch before. And this is the time to do it. To win, though, Roger will have to serve much better than he has and he’s got to cut down on the bad errors. Otherwise Novak’s going to run away with the match like Del Potro did, and Novak won’t allow his body fail him. So Roger certainly has a very good chance here, especially if Djokovic comes out nervy (assuming Nadal is the earlier match, imagine the change in pressure should Ferrer upset Rafa).
But I’m just not sold on Federer on this surface. I still can’t put much stock in Madrid and Roger hasn’t really had a good quality win since (sorry, Del Potro was injured). So I’m leaning Djokovic who has to be motivated not only by history but also by revenge for the loss a year ago. And as I said, Novak’s simply been the better player so far. House money rules.
The pick: Djokovic in four
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