It was not written in stone before the tournament began, but the Roland Garros stonemason surely must have at least carved the initials of three-time champion Rafael Nadal and world No3 Novak Djokovic into his semi-final bracket.
On Tuesday, Nadal played one of his best matches ever in a 6-1 6-1 6-1 whitewash of fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro and said that he was in the best physical shape he has ever been during his four Roland Garros campaigns. He will certainly need to be in tiptop shape for Djokovic, who outplayed his friend Ernests Gulbis 7-5 7-6 7-5 to qualify nfor his second Roland Garros semi-final.
“There is no such thing as a prewritten script before the tournament starts, and anything can happen before any match,” Nadal said. “You never know if you'll make it to the semifinal, final, and win. This is something that we all have in mind. We all know that.”
While Djokovic did not play his best against Gulbis in tough conditions, he seized all the big points, playing steady and smart while the 19-year-old Latvian was erratic when the pressure points came.
“Novak is a player who really plays well on the deciding points, and almost every deciding point he made me work so hard for the point,” Gulbis said. “Most of the time I made errors, because there were no errors from him at all when it came to important points.”
Booming big serves, cracking his forehand, rushing the net and tossing in some soft drop shots, Gulbis had chances in every set, but he grew sloppy when it mattered, flying his ground-strokes over the baseline and becoming confused as to what the right strategies should be.
“That's what makes him No. 3 in the world, that he can play those important points with no errors at all,” Gulbis said. “I think my forehand is still a lot to improve, because as you could see, when it came to deciding moments it got a little bit shaky. It's not so consistent.”
Djokovic played about as carefully as he is capable of and only cut loose when his former practice partner from the Pilic Tennis Academy made a major push at him. Even though he is only 21 years old, his experience showed.
“I knew he was going to go for the shots, so I didn't want to make the same rhythm,” Djokovic said. “I didn't want to try to overpower his game. He's very strong. He's very tall. He has a great serve. But I tried to play a bit more patient and more safe in certain moments, that's for sure. But this is not going to be a case in the next match.”
Nadal, who celebrated his 22nd birthday on Tuesday, played yet another relentless, suffocating contest against a man who he said before the match was one of the top five clay-courters in the world. But Almagro could not contain himself, nor deal with the heaviness of Nadal's strokes.
“I think there was a guy called Nadal on the centre court, and he played much better than me all the time, a bit like a flash,” Almagro said. “I tried to play it at the beginning, but I did not expect such results. Quite clearly today I am still far from Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, David, and that gives me strength to continue to work. Congratulations Rafa. I probably didn't play my best tennis, but, when Rafa plays like this, there is nothing you can say. Just congratulate him, wish him a happy birthday, and wish him all the best for the rest of this tournament. Quite clearly we'll have a champion for many years here in Roland Garros.”
Nadal has lost the least amount of games in reaching a Roland Garros semi-final in open era history, equaling Bjorn Borg’s record which dates back to when the first two rounds were played as best-of-three sets.
“Centre court here is not easy,” Nadal said. “Always the wind is changing, and the court is very big. So if you are not playing a lot of times there it's difficult to adapt in the beginning, no? But anyway, I think I played a very complete match. He has a lot of mistakes. But I start the match, having the control of the point with the forehand, and touching better the ball with the backhand. So the most important thing I think was the forehand. Today I feel better the ball.”
Nadal and Djokovic have played 10 times, with Nadal owning a 7-3 edge, having never lost to him on clay, including wins at 2006 and 2007 Roland Garros. But Djokovic nearly upset the Spaniard in the Hamburg semifinals two weeks ago in a classic three-hour, three-set match and with the confidence he displayed in winning his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, he will certainly be a bigger threat than he was here the previous two years. The world No2 ranking will be on the line on Friday.
“I hope it's going to be like the last time, especially if I win,” Nadal said. “But I know it's going to be a difficult match. He is very good so far this year. He plays at a very high level, but I also play well. I'm aware of the fact that if I'm not playing at 100% it's going to be very difficult for me to win this match, so I need to play at 100%.”
While Djokovic is incredibly solid off both wings and has been serving and returning beautifully, he will have to step up a gear against the left-handed Nadal, who has a 39-0 record in best-of-five-set matches on clay. His defence is near impregnable and grinding types of players find it impossible to knock him off his stride. If the Serbian does not take risks, he will find himself caught in Nadal's spell once again.
“He's been playing better and better,” Djokovic said. “He’s improved I think the serve a lot this year, on clay especially, and he's going for some shots much more. He combines that with his great physical strength and then patience, and it's impressive on this surface. But I don't want to go out there in semis and just try my best. I don't want to do that. I want to win, and I think I have good quality and good chance. I know, of course, he's a favorite, and all the credit to that. But only with a positive attitude and approach in the match I can get the positive outcome.”