French Open 2012: Men's Semifinals Are Tennis At Its Highest Level

The two semifinals in the 2012 French Open men's semifinals feature two incredibly different narratives. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer tend to play each other as closely as possible, while Rafael Nadal simply doesn't lose to David Ferrer on clay. What shifts might these stories take on Friday?

The two semifinals in the 2012 French Open men's semifinals feature two incredibly different narratives. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer tend to play each other as closely as possible, while Rafael Nadal simply doesn't lose to David Ferrer on clay. What shifts might these stories take on Friday?

No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 3 Roger Federer

All-Time Series: Federer 14-11 (sets: Federer 43-31)

On Clay: Federer 3-2 (sets: Federer 7-6)

Since the start of the 2010 calendar year, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have played 11 times. Djokovic has won six times, Federer five.

They have played 34 sets. Djokovic has won 18, Federer 16.

They have played 2,201 points. Djokovic has won 1,108 (50.3 percent), Federer 1,093 (49.7). Or to put that another way, for every 200 points they play, Djokovic wins 100.6, Federer 99.4.

In the six matches Djokovic has won against Federer since 2010, he has won 53.1 percent of the points. In every match he has lost, he has won 46.7 percent of the points. Just one of every 16 points goes one way or the other, and it determines the winner. It is difficult to get any closer than that.

When Djokovic, the defensive wizard, and Federer, the most creative offensive player of our lifetime, face off, every unforced error (of which Federer tends to hit more) is devastating. Every first serve that clips the tape of the net matters. Every winner that nicks the line (of which Federer tends to hit more) is a savior. Every mishit, slip or blip in concentration is magnified.

With matches this close, with points this complex, sometimes the keys to winning are actually rather simple. Here is what to track while taking in this fantastic match:

Is Djokovic Doing Something With His First Serve? When Djokovic beats Federer, he wins 74 percent of his first-serve points and, therefore, rarely faces break points. But when Federer gets the upper hand, he does so by holding Djokovic to only 60 percent success on his first-serve points. When Djokovic is winning, 6.8 percent of his first serves are aces; when he is losing, that drops to 5.4 percent.

Federer's return has regressed a bit in recent years (it is the main reason he is No. 3 right now instead of No. 1 -- his serve is as strong as ever), but it is still solid enough to do damage against a serve like Djokovic's, which isn't exactly a weakness, but isn't a particular strength. When the two faced off in Rome in May, Djokovic won 81 percent of his first-serve points and cruised to an easy 6-2, 7-6 victory. When Djokovic finds a little bit extra on that first serve, it makes a lot of difference.

(Though if the winds in Paris on Friday are anything like they were on Thursday, going for broke on your serve with wobbly tosses isn't necessarily a winning proposition.)

Who Wins The First Set? In these last 11 matches, Federer has won the first set seven times; he is 5-2 when he takes the opener, 0-4 when he doesn't. The only time Federer's stamina ever comes into play is, basically, in best-of-five matches against Djokovic, whose 2011 run to three majors was driven, in part, because he built himself into one of the fittest athletes of all-time, in ANY sport.

It's not just that Djokovic can maintain a certain level of play for hours upon hours; it's that he can maintain the highest possible level of play. He forces you to play as close to your best as possible for longer than you ever have, and eventually you break down. Just ask Jo-Wilifried Tsonga, who played some of the best tennis of his career in sets 2-4 of his quarterfinal match versus Djokovic but still couldn't close out a win in the fourth. In the fifth, he buckled. Federer is fantastic, but if you drop the first set to Djokovic, you must win three of the next four to take him down. That margin of error is just too small.

No matter what happens here -- straight-set win (either way) or five-set masterpiece, when Djokovic and Federer are on the court together, they produce some of the prettiest, most intense and exhausting tennis you will ever see. If you have things to do on Friday morning, do it during the other match.

Prediction: Djokovic in 4.

No. 2 Rafael Nadal vs. No. 6 David Ferrer

All-Time Series: Nadal 15-4 (sets: Nadal 32-12)

On Clay: Nadal 11-1 (sets: Nadal 26-4)

The storyline for Nadal-Ferrer is, shall we say, a little less interesting. Since dropping a three-set heartbreaker in Stuttgart in 2004, Nadal has won 25 of the last 27 sets these two have played on clay. Rarely do you see a series this lopsided between two elite players.

Ferrer continues to play fit, fast tennis, and he continues to grind out quality results despite his age (30 years old) and size (5'9, 160) typically working against him. He is, after all, No. 6 in the world, and he has now reached the semifinals of three different majors in his career (U.S. Open 2007, Australian Open 2011, French Open 2012). But his tournament usually comes to an end when the bracket dictates he play Nadal. And the reason is simple: Nadal can do everything Ferrer can, only with much, much more power. In every sport, matchups are key. And this matchup favors Nadal to a significant degree.

Can Ferrer Hurt Nadal? Take this however you want: literally or figuratively. Ferrer has only defeated Nadal once in the last four years and 12 meetings, and it was when Nadal was suffering from a tweaked hamstring in the 2011 Australian Open. Nadal does break down from time to time, but "hope he gets hurt" isn't much of a match strategy, so let's stick with the figurative world. Ferrer cannot compete with Nadal's power, but he might -- might -- have an edge in the fitness category. Nadal never lacks in this regard, but Ferrer can at least fight him to a draw here.

There are two things worth noting that at least suggest that not all hope is lost for Ferrer here:

  1. When Nadal beat Ferrer in Barcelona earlier in 2012, it took him 160 minutes to win two sets (7-6, 7-5). A five-setter at that pace could go six hours, and that's exactly what Ferrer must try to do. Run Nadal left to right, run him up and back, stretch points as long as they will go, and hope that you can eventually find some cracks in Nadal's game. It might not work (it probably won't, in fact), but it might be the only thing Ferrer can try. Hell, he probably tries it every time already.

  2. Of the last 14 sets Nadal has won over Ferrer, nine were as close as 6-4, and two of the last four have gone to tie-breakers. That only matters so much -- Nadal did, after all, still win all of these sets -- but we are not talking about complete domination here. In that same match in Barcelona, Nadal only won 53.2 percent of the points. But as Nadal typically does, he won the RIGHT points, just as he does in always winning tie-breakers versus his quarterfinal conquest, Nicolas Almagro. Still, "any given day," et cetera. Ferrer could pull a shock result by just doing one or two points better in a given set.

On Monday, I wondered whether Nadal was perhaps playing his best clay-court tennis ever. All he has done since then is defeat two excellent clay-court players by a combined game margin of 37-13. When he faces Ferrer at 100 percent health, he doesn't lose. The onus is on Ferrer to figure out how to do something different against the Nadal machine. Until he does, Nadal doesn't need to change a damn thing.

Prediction: Nadal in 3.

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