By Nick Zaccardi
PARIS -- The French Open men’s semifinals are scheduled to begin Friday at 7 a.m. ET. (Click here for the order of play.)
Three of the top four seeds reached the final four, something that would have been an oddity 10 or 15 years ago but is beginning to become a regularity with the improved all-court games of the elite men (and, perhaps, diminishing number of competitive clay-court specialists).
Here’s a preview of the men’s semifinals:
No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 3 Rafael Nadal (first semifinal): You read that right. The two best players in the world are playing on a Friday of a Grand Slam, not a Sunday. The luck of the draw put Djokovic in the same half as Nadal. (Nadal fell out of the top four in the ATP rankings after being sidelined seven months with a knee injury following his stunning loss to Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon last year.)
This will be the 35th meeting between the two (more than Nadal's series with Roger Federer), and the last 11 matches have been finals. Nadal said there is a one major difference playing Djokovic in a penultimate match.
"If you win, you didn't win nothing yet," he said, smiling.
Nadal, the record seven-time champion at Roland Garros, looked vulnerable in the first week of the French Open, losing opening sets to Daniel Brands and Martin Klizan in the first two rounds. The weather's brightened in week two, adding bounce to Nadal's spinning shots. He's taken advantage, rolling past No. 13 Kei Nishikori and No. 9 Stan Wawrinka to reach the semis. He lost 14 total games the last two rounds.
"[Wawrinka] was my best match of the tournament, without any doubt," Nadal said, adding he's gone three straight matches without dropping a set. "That starts to be very positive numbers. Only numbers, but most important thing at the end is the feeling, and the feeling is completely different."
Djokovic's road to the semis has gone a little lighter on the court -- he's lost only one set -- but much heavier off of it. On Saturday, Djokovic beat blossoming Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 but learned after the match that his first coach, Jelena Gencic, had died at age 76. Djokovic called Gencic his "second mother."
"I feel even more responsible now to go all the way in this tournament," said Djokovic, who is a Coupe de Mousquetaires trophy away from completing a career Grand Slam. "I want to do it for her."
Djokovic has the inspiration. He should also have plenty of belief. In their most recent meeting, he beat Nadal on clay for the first time since 2011, winning the Monte Carlo Masters title 6-2, 7-6 (1) in April. In four previous encounters at Roland Garros, Djokovic has won a grand total of one set.
"I'm ready for five sets," Djokovic said. ""I need that necessary intensity from the start. I need to be willing to and needing to play on top of my game throughout the whole match, because that's what it's going to take to win against him."
The historical significance for Djokovic is obvious. For Nadal, he'll want to keep his near-perfect record here (one loss, in 2009 to Robin Soderling) and show on the major stage that he is the same player -- if not better -- than he was before that extended break. Is he nervous?
"If not, better go home and do another thing," Nadal said. "Because if you are not nervous to play the semifinals against the best player in the world, it's because you are not enjoying or you don't feel the passion for the game."
Prediction: Djokovic in four sets.
Here are highlights of their most recent meeting, in the Monte Carlo final.
No. 4 David Ferrer vs. No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (second semifinal): This match could create an atmosphere never before seen or heard on Court Philippe Chatrier in this golden era of men's tennis. The electric Tsonga reached his first French Open semifinal by ousting No. 2 Federer in the quarterfinals. Of intriguing note, it was Tsonga who said last year that "there is no chance" of a Frenchman winning at Roland Garros and received the expected backlash.
Now, he's closer to France's favorite son, the nation's first semifinalist at its home Slam since the enigmatic Gael Monfils in 2008. If you've made more than a cursory check of ESPN2, Tennis Channel or NBC coverage these two weeks, you know that no Frenchman has won here since Yannick Noah 30 years ago. (Asked about his relationship with Noah, Tsonga said, "When he says something to me, I listen to him."). If any Frenchman can carry the weight, it's the broad-shouldered man from Le Mans.
"Everybody's expecting a lot from me since the beginning of the tournament," he said after dismissing Federer 7-5, 6-3, 6-3, his fifth consecutive straight-sets win at Roland Garros. "Not only this tournament, but every day. So I'm used to it."
The man on the other side of the net should also feel pressure. The feisty Spaniard Ferrer, known by many as the hardest-working man not to win a major, is into his sixth career Grand Slam semifinal. The five previous have gone like this: 2007 U.S. Open loss to Djokovic; 2011 Australian Open loss to Andy Murray; 2012 French Open loss to Nadal; 2012 U.S. Open loss to Djokovic; and 2013 Australian Open loss to Djokovic. Finally, Ferrer doesn't have to go through one of the Big Four to make a major final. He wouldn't acknowledge it makes it any easier, though.
"I do realize it's not the first round of a small tournament," he said after beating Tommy Robredo 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 in the quarterfinals. Like Tsonga, Ferrer hasn't dropped a set in Paris. "It's a semifinal," Ferrer said. "But I'm not going to start dreaming and celebrating before it's time. It's one match. That's it."
Conventional wisdom says Tsonga wins if he plays like he has all tournament. Tsonga's best is better than Ferrer's best. But Ferrer, the consistent baseline puncher, is far less likely to be fazed by the environment, even though the crowd will do him no favors. Tsonga, on the other hand, has never been on this stage in Paris. He's made the finals of a major. He also went out in the second round at last year's U.S. Open. Ferrer has won two of their three meetings, including at the Paris Masters (indoor hard court) last year and their only match on clay, at the 2010 Italian Open. Tsonga, however, won on the biggest stage -- at Wimbledon in 2011 -- and that may just be the most telling result of them all.
Prediction: Tsonga in three sets.
Here are highlights of their most recent meeting, at the 2012 Paris Masters. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RzffSJ2B2Q