This close to another epic Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic French Open final, can either Andy Murray or Ernests Gulbis or both spoil what we have looked forward to all season?
Before I get to what might happen, allow me to reflect on what did happen. Specifically that almost-entertaining afternoon of bizarro tennis Wednesday when we sawAndy Murray somehow beat the sunset and beat Gael Monfils and also David Ferrer all but gave up for good against Rafael Nadal.
Ferrer played well enough in the first and had his teeth more than in it in the second, and that’s when the proverbial wheel’s came off the cart.
Rafa revved up his game, Ferrer couldn’t find the court anymore and a match that few thought would finish on the same day it began was over. The most surprising results came afterward when Ferrer admitted to giving up.
“Rafael started playing a lot better, making fewer mistakes, and then it’s like I threw in the towel,” Ferrer said. “I don’t usually do this, but I thought, I’m not going to be able to come back into the match. I thought, No, no, not against Rafa. He’s such good a player.”
And that from a guy who just beat Rafa six weeks ago and who’s one of the best fighters on the planet. And Rafa made him quit.
Speaking of giving up, Gael Monfils basically did just that as well. After waking up to come back from two sets to force a fifth against Murray, Monfils caved in in the fifth, barely making an effort in front of his fans.
What a disgrace that Monfils is sometimes. Is it a surprise he has no coach?
So from the top half things went according to form. The bottom half… almost. Now to my picks…
Rafael Nadal v Andy Murray
Andy Murray has his work cut out for him. Rafael Nadal has won 33 straight matches at his favorite event on the calendar. He’s won 88 of 89 matches in best-of-5 on clay and he’s never lost to the Scot on the dirt dropping just two lonely sets in five matches.
Is there any hope? Of course there is. Murray just played him tough at Rome and let’s be real, someday Rafa will lose again in Paris, but will Murray be the guy to administer such a blow?
Sure, this season Rafa hasn’t looked like the invincible Rafa we’re accustomed to. The cracks are there, the errors come in bunches and now the back is unfortunately achy. But so far at the French he has looked a little better, a little sharper and maybe he’s rounding into form at just the right time.
Still I do wonder about that damn back. If it’s an issue in any way, a competent returner like Murray can take advantage. And Even if his back is OK, Murray can still do damage as we saw in Rome where he scorched a 6-1 first set.
That means Murray has to pounce on Nadal’s second serve. Go on the offensive early. Hammer his serve. Play with belief. And as former coach Ivan Lendl once said, he’s got to be ready for the pain.
For Nadal, he’s got to play his game, don’t get too defensive and get that pop back in his serve. On clay that should be enough.
Nadal has won 14 of 19 and leads Murray 6-2 in Slam play, and I have to think their 20th meeting will follow form. Murray’s playing well but this is Rafa’s playground. He’s not going to relinquish it that easily. Not here, not now, and not to a guy who has never been to a clay final before.
The pick: Nadal in four
Ernests Gulbis v Novak Djokovic
I give Ernests Gulbis a lot of credit. The guy has a ton of talent, a high powered game but between the ears he seemed to be completely lost at times. But for whatever reason he’s turned it around and gotten right in the head the last 12 months. And not only is he in his first career Slam semifinal he did so by beating both Roger Federer AND Tomas Berdych back-to-back. Just wow!
But his fairy tale run ends on Friday because Djokovic is going to take Ernests to school.
While Ernests has almost unmatched power, Djokovic is the king of defense, master of movement and new sultan of swat. And he’s got the motivation here. If Ernests is going to win he’s going to have to grind out points, something he didn’t necessarily have to do against either Federer or Berdych, two clean ballstrikers who don’t particularly enjoy the thought of long points.
Djokovic is more than happy to be out there all day playing offense, defense, Parcheesi, scrabble, gluten-free chutes and ladders, whatever it takes. And so far he’s lost just one single set at the tournament. Gulbis will have to somehow grind out three to get the win.
So while I expect a close set or two and some tense moments – sure Ernests can get hot and likely will at some point – I can’t see Novak letting down here just six sets from the ultimate goal.
The pick: Djokovic in three
Tennis Channel will have the complete coverage of the first semi, NBC the Nadal-Murray match.
FRIDAY MEN’S SEMIFINAL SCHEDULE
Court Philippe Chatrier 1:00 PM Start
Ernests Gulbis (LAT) vs. Novak Djokovic (SRB)
Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs. Andy Murray (GBR)
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