French Open men's semifinal preview
Friday is semifinal day for the men at the French Open. I'll be live-blogging both matches with SI.com tennis producer C.W. Sesno, so please join us starting at 7 a.m. ET. Here's a look at the matchups.
Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer: No current tennis rivalry gets the juices going like this one. While Federer has the utmost respect for Rafael Nadal, and Djokovic and Nadal are hug-buddies who used to share the same publicist, the relative Cold War that exists between Djokovic and Federer is palpable. The Serb's bravado throughout his career seems to have ruffled the Swiss' feathers, and Federer savors his wins over Djokovic in a way he doesn't against anyone else. As for Djokovic, I've always sensed that he just doesn't understand why Federer doesn't like him. There are moments when it bothers him and you can see him withdraw into a shell and ingratiate himself to the 16-time Grand Slam champion, and then there are times when he just lets it go and carries on with that intense look in his eyes.
Of course, there couldn't have been a more satisfying result for Federer last year than his 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) victory over Djokovic in the French Open semifinals. Federer ended Djokovic's perfect season and 43-match winning streak and, in hindsight, quite possibly the Serb's bid for a true Grand Slam. How delicious was the win? After firing an ace on match point, Federer strutted to the net, wagged his finger and nodded his head before letting out a primal yell. That one meant a lot to him. Of course, Djokovic would repay him the favor three months later in the U.S. Open semifinals by miraculously saving two match points (just like he did a year before) and rallying from two sets down to win. Who knows what the landscape would look like if that forehand doesn't land in?
Which brings us to their semifinal clash on Friday. Djokovic rolled through the early rounds before coming back from a two-set hole against Andreas Seppi and saving four match points in a five-set victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Federer dropped sets to the likes of Adrian Unger, Nicolas Mahut, and David Goffin, and he survived Juan Martin del Potro after dropping the first two sets.
Djokovic has won their only meeting this year, a 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory in the Rome semifinals. Federer will need to replicate the huge serving day he had last year against Djokovic in Paris, which included 18 aces and a mark of 76 percent on first-serve points won. Federer is in for a long day if he can't get on top of the rallies early, and I just don't see him being able to defeat Djokovic in five sets. Much like Nadal, Djokovic is able to exploit Federer's backhand on clay and his movement forces Federer to go for more than he'd like sometimes. Federer needs to step it up big to pull off another upset here.
Prediction: Djokovic in four sets.
Rafael Nadal vs. David Ferrer: Can Ferrer beat Nadal on clay? He did it once ... in 2004 in Stuttgart, their first career meeting. But since then, Ferrer has never topped his compatriot on the surface (he's 4-15 overall) and he hasn't even taken a set off him in seven clay matches dating to 2009. In their two clay meetings this year, Ferrer pushed Nadal hard in Barcelona but lost 7-6 (1), 7-5. He mounted a similar charge in the first set in Rome, only to lose 8-6 in the tiebreaker and then get bageled in the second set. In other words, when the moments get tight, Ferrer cracks against Nadal and he hasn't given us any reason to think this time might be different. He lacks the true belief that he can win, a void that is magnified when things get tense.
"I think you can win a set against Rafa, but there is a difference between winning a set and winning a match," Ferrer told Spanish reporters after his quarterfinal win over Andy Murray. "Winning a match against Rafa is almost impossible."
I mean, does this sound like a guy who thinks he can win Friday?
Nadal, who is 50-1 at Roland Garros, enters the match in strong form, too. The world No. 2 hasn't dropped a set in five matches and he's lost serve only once, saving 16 of 17 break points. Ferrer doesn't have a serve that will earn him cheap points, which means he'll have to win the battle off the ground. There are "tough asks" and then, as Ferrer said, there are "almost impossible asks." This would be the latter.
Prediction: Nadal in three sets.