Call it what you will: The “real final”, “de facto final” or the “final before the final”, I’ll just call it for what it really is and that’s chapter 35 in a rivalry of the two best players in men’s tennis, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. For the second straight year the two meet at the French Open, this time in the semifinals.
First to the other semifinal, which may be of more interest to local French fans since for the first time since 2008 it features one of their very own, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, against Spanish 31-year-old David Ferrer.
JW Tsonga v. David Ferrer
It’s just the fourth meeting between these two veterans but easily their most significant with a spot in their first French Open final at stake. Ferrer’s back to the semifinals here for a second straight year; Tsonga, after blasting 2009 champ Roger Federer, is in his first.
Both players had two days off and both are well in form – neither has dropped a single set or really come close to losing one – so both guys will be at full strength as they should be. Ferrer really hasn’t had much competition so far. Tsonga, under the weight of the home pressure, did beat Federer, but otherwise also had a very comfortable road.
Nerves will likely factor in at some point. Between the two of them, they’ve played in nine combined Slam semis and have won just one. So it’s quite a moment for both.
Ferrer has won two of their three meetings, beating Tsonga at the Paris Indoors in November. The other came on the Rome clay in 2010. Tsonga gained his lone victory over Ferrer at Wimbledon, unsurprisingly winning in straights on grass.
Tsonga has been remarkably focused all event. New coach Roger Rasheed has him playing good tennis again and after slumping last year against Top 10 players, he’s back beating the big names.
The clay obviously favors Ferrer in this one. It’s his surface, it’s what he grew up on and this event is his most important. But the match is on Tsonga’s racquet. If he gets hot and the weather is warm and dry, I don’t know how Ferrer can match his point-to-point firepower. And once JW gets that momentum and crowd going, it’s going to be tough for even a guy like Ferrer to stem the tide. And I think that’s what’s going to happen.
It’s a tough selection…
The pick: Tsonga in five
Novak Djokovic v. Rafael Nadal
Nadal and Djokovic do it again for the 35th time on Friday, and after so many final showdowns for the first time this decade they meet in a semifinal. Nadal leads 19-15 and 12-3 on clay. But Djokovic will be buoyed by his big win in Monte Carlo, a place like Paris where Rafa also seemed to be unbeatable.
But at the French the task is taller. Djokovic will have to do what only one player, Robin Soderling, has ever done: Beat Nadal over 5 sets on clay. And at the French the two have met four times before with Rafa winning all of them by an 11-1 set edge.
Three of those wins, though, came in the early days. Djokovic, as we saw a year ago, is a far better player, and it’s debatable that Nadal is any better.
For me, the key of the match will be Djokovic’s serve and his return of serve. If both are in harmony and his groundstrokes are firing he could walk away with the win. If he’s deficient in anything, it could could spell trouble.
Djokovic also needs a fast start. You can’t fall behind trying to beat Nadal on his best surface. Winning three sets off Rafa in best-of-5 is next to impossible, but winning three in best-of-4 or even best-of-3 is about unthinkable.
Rafa will be Rafa I’m sure, though early on he too will need to be on his game. Similarly, he too doesn’t want to have to fight from behind. Djokovic isn’t Martin Klizan or Daniel Brands. Novak’s got the experinece, the motivation and the game to put the clamps on Rafa. And since the start of his surge in 2011 he’s held the upper hand in this series.
So the first set Friday will likely be the tell.
For all his improvements, though, I still think Novak’s a year away. He’s not the same player he was in 2011.
The pick: Nadal in five
Tennis Channel will air the Nadal-Djokovic final at 7am. NBC has the Tsonga-Ferrer.
FRIDAY FRENCH OPEN SCHEDULE
Court Philippe Chatrier 1:00 PM Start Time
Novak Djokovic (SRB) v. Rafael Nadal (ESP)
David Ferrer (ESP) v. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA)
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