by Steve Flink
PARIS – As I left New York last night to fly over to France for the homestretch of Roland Garros, I was hoping that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic would set up a semifinal for Friday. And, lo and behold, they did just that on a cool and often rainy afternoon on the clay. I marveled at both men as they recorded quarterfinal triumphs. Djokovic was made to work inordinately hard by the gifted and spontaneously brilliant Ernests Gulbis, one of the game’s most improved players across the 2008 season. Gulbis is an extraordinary shot maker, full of imagination and aggression, ever willing to take chances when he is down.
Until he finally lost his serve at 5-6 in the first set of his meeting with the seasoned and determined Djokovic, Gulbis saved no fewer than 11 break points. His obstinacy was admirable and he had Djokovic constantly talking to himself. Djokovic was exasperated by having so many missed opportunities, but the free-wheeling Gulbis caused much of his adversary’s frustration by coming up with spectacular shots time and again at break point down. After Djokovic sealed that set, he found himself in a bind, trailing 2-4 in the second. The world No. 3 extricated himself to win that set in a tie-break, raising his career record in breakers to 68-26. He gave nothing away in that sequence, and played like the great competitor he has become in the last year.
In the third set of that contest, Djokovic served for the match at 5-4, was denied victory, and then got the job done two games later., winning 7-5, 7-6 (3), 7-5. But I must say this about Gulbis: I liked what I saw, and I saw what I liked. He is going to be a formidable individual in this game for a long time. He hits the ball exceedingly well off both sides and has a very impressive serve. His touch is superb on the drop shot and he is not afraid to come in. All that he needs to reach the world’s top ten by next year is match playing experience, and he will get that.
As for Nadal, the Spaniard continued his joy ride through the draw with another excellent showing on his favorite court. Nadal routed Nicolas Almagro 6-1, 6-1, 6-1. To be sure, Almagro confirmed that he has almost too much respect for his countryman. But the fact remains that he tried earnestly to find any openings to exploit Nadal, and they were few and far between. Since being extended to 7-5 in his opening set of the tournament against qualifier and remarkable prospect Thomaz Bellucci, Nadal has played 14 sets and has given up a grand total of 20 games! His devastatingly effective inside-out forehand has never looked better, and he defends so stupendously on this court that it is no wonder his rivals have found it so arduous to win even games from him.
To be sure, Nadal will be confronting an entirely different kind of player in Djokovic, who has been a semifinalist or better now in five consecutive “Big Four” events. The last time these two gladiators clashed, they played a match worthy of a major final in the penultimate round in Hamburg. Nadal ultimately prevailed in a bruising, mightily fought, astonishingly high quality encounter 7-5, 2-6,6-2. Djokovic built a 3-0, 15-40 lead in the first set before Nadal struck back boldly to prevail. That was the key to the outcome.
On that occasion, Djokovic played the finest clay court tennis of his career and pushed the “King of Clay” to the hilt. But the fact remains that he still came away with only one set despite making such a monumental effort. He also was understandably worn down in the end by the indefatigable Spaniard. The question as Nadal and Djokovic approach their third semifinal showdown in the last five majors is as follows: how in the world can even a top of the line Djokovic find a way to win three sets against a Nadal who may well be playing the best clay court tennis of his life?
Djokovic now comfortably wears the label of greatness. His Australian Open victory in January was no accident; it was the product of an excellent worth ethic, one of the best first serve’s in the sport, a growing awareness and capability on the volley, and an evolving mental toughness. Djokovic could well win another major later this year, but I don’t expect him to beat Nadal at this time on the slow red clay of Roland Garros. Nadal will be primed for that appointment, and let’s not forget that this is a man who has never lost a match at Roland Garros, a man who owns a 26-0 record at the French Open, a man who seems to be taking his game up to another level at precisely the right time. The Nadal who won here from 2005-2007 would lose to the current model; of that I am certain.
But that does not mean Djokovic will not wage a stirring fight when he collides with Nadal on Friday. He knows that the key will be the first set. He absolutely has to get ahead of the Spaniard. But time will be on Nadal’s side, and the Spanish lefty is brimming with confidence as he heads into his showdown with Djokovic. Nadal is irrefutably the man to beat, but Djokovic will compete ferociously and he is not in awe of his formidable rival. I can’t wait to see them go at it again.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
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