|Rafael Nadal,Novak Djokovic
Paris: Novak Djokovic knows that the road to his first French Open title goes through Rafael Nadal. It is a road he has not crossed before, but one he knows he can cross.
“I know what I need to do in order to win,” Djokovic said after defeating Ernests Gulbis, 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, in the semi-final on Friday. “It’s easier said than done, of course, because we all know how good he is on this court. But he’s not unbeatable.”
Nadal looked unbeatable, routing Andy Murray, 6-3, 6-2, 6- 1, in the other semi-final to reach the final at Roland Garros for the fifth straight year. Nadal, the top seed, has lost one set in the tournament.
The French Open is the only Grand Slam tournament Djokovic has not won. Nadal, who has won it a record eight times, defeated him in the 2012 final and in five sets in the 2013 semi-finals.
“Knowing that I was that close to win against him the past two years gives me that reason to believe that I can make it this time,” the second-seeded Djokovic said.
The No. 1 ranking will also be at stake in Sunday’s final, which will be the 42nd meeting between Nadal and Djokovic, adding to an Open record for men. Djokovic has won the last four, including the final in Rome on clay last month.
Djokovic has been better recently on clay, where he is 14-1 this year, and while Nadal has had some surprising losses this spring, he is still 24-3 on the surface this season.
“I lost a few matches, but playing the way that I played today, probably I will not,” Nadal said. “But another thing that is true is every week on the clay-court season I was doing something better.”
And he has not been better on clay this season than he was Friday, defeating the seventh-seeded Murray with ruthless efficiency.
Nadal won 91 per cent of his first-serve points, and lost only 10 points on his serve against one of the game’s best returners. He also converted all six of his break-point opportunities.
Murray called it the toughest match he had played against Nadal. “Today he was hitting extremely hard, extremely heavy, returning well, and was hitting it well on the run,” said Murray, who will turn his focus to defending his Wimbledon title six months after returning from back surgery.
He added: “You can go out there with, you know, all the tactics in the world, but when he’s hitting the ball like that, it’s very difficult to hit the ball where you want to.”
Nadal’s forehand was particularly lethal. Fifteen of his 24 winners came from that side, where he had been struggling to hit winners early in the clay season.
“I was not able to take advantage when I was hitting with my forehand,” he said. “I was losing court. I was playing with more mistakes than usual.”
After nearly two weeks of damp and cool conditions, it was sunny and warm Friday, a blessing for Nadal’s game.
“For me is much better when the weather is like today,” Nadal said. “My ball creates more topspin. The ball goes quicker in the air, and with my forehand I am able to create more with less.”
The weather may have been an advantage for Nadal, but it was a hindrance for Djokovic. He said he became fatigued midway through the third set against Gulbis, whom he had been dominating up to that point.
The 18th-seeded Gulbis, playing in his first Grand Slam semi-final, acknowledged that he was “extra nervous and extra tense.” Djokovic was in his 22nd Grand Slam semi-final, and he was in firm control in the first two sets.
“It was not a good quality tennis at all,” Gulbis said. “It was just grinding and just trying to put the ball in.”
After outlasting Gulbis in a 16-point game at 2-3 in the third set, saving two break points, Djokovic started to waver. Gulbis broke him at 3-4 and then served out the set to extend the match.
Djokovic grew increasingly frustrated with his missed shots. After one backhand went long early in the fourth set, he leaned back and screamed. When he failed to consolidate a break of Gulbis’s serve,
Djokovic broke his racket, earning hisses from the crowd.
But Gulbis was even more fatigued by then. Serving at 3-4 in the fourth, he got ahead by 30-0, but double-faulted and made two backhand errors, helping Djokovic earn a crucial break.
Djokovic held at love to take the match. Gulbis finished with 44 unforced errors to Djokovic’s 25.
Gulbis, 25, will enter the top 10 Monday for the first time after the most successful Grand Slam event of his tumultuous career.
“I’m not going to celebrate,” he said. “It’s not enough. I need to reach more now. Now I’m addicted to success.”
If so, he should watch Sunday’s final, where Djokovic will be trying to win his seventh Grand Slam title, and Nadal his 14th. It will be the sixth time they have met in a Grand Slam final.
Djokovic dismissed the idea that he had the upper hand based on recent results, recalling that Nadal’s history at Roland Garros, where he has lost only once, makes him the favourite.
“He’s been elevating his game as the tournament progresses, and he’s starting to feel at his best when he needs to,” Djokovic said. “It’s not the first time that that happens in his case. That’s Nadal, and Roland Garros, he has been always playing his best towards the end of the tournament.