2013 French Open: Men's semifinal previews

Susan Mullane-US PRESSWIRE

Who survives the Djokovic-Nadal bloodbath? And who makes full use of their "It's his year" karma, Ferrer or Tsonga? (Hint: The answers are Nadal and Ferrer.) Previewing two intriguing semifinal matchups, one quite familiar and one quite curious.

Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal

Matchup Seed AB Rank AB Clay Rank Head-to-Head Wins Head-to-Head on Clay Avg. opp. Rank (AB clay) % of games won thus far
Djokovic 1 1 2 15 3 47.8 63.2%
Nadal 3 2 1 19 12 30.8 61.7%

Honestly? I don't even know what to say about this one. I only started writing about tennis here in January 2012, and Nadal missed about seven months with injury, and I've still written about the Nadal-Djokovic matchup quite a few times by now.

January 2012:

A funny thing happened on Rafael Nadal's path toward becoming the greatest player of all-time. While Nadal was tailoring his game, successfully, toward taking out the great Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic was tailoring his to take out Nadal. Nadal was learning about the angles and power that it takes to hold Roger at bay, while Djokovic was figuring out the depth, positioning and conditioning it takes to knock off Rafa. Nadal cleared an incredible hurdle, dominating the Federer series and, at one point, winning 32 consecutive matches in 2008; and then Djokovic stole his thunder and completely demoralized him for much of 2011.

May 2012:

Like many, I began to resent Nadal for any number of reasons. He was threatening Federer's legacy. He was countering art with brute strength. It was almost a relief when his body began to randomly betray him, not because it gave Federer more slam opportunities, but because it also made no sense to me that a body could accomplish what Nadal forces his to do for five hours at a time. He was so strong and so devastating that I began to wonder how, when he was healthy, anybody could beat him consistently.

And then Novak Djokovic raised his game. Until 2011, I felt bad for Djokovic, a speedy, consistently solid player who may have dominated the game in 2002. Like Roddick, Djokovic was robbed of multiple slams simply because he was born in the wrong decade. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, however, he got better. Much, much better. He became the most fit player on tour. He suddenly became Michael Chang on defense, Andre Agassi on offense. He beat Nadal by deflecting every 1-2 punch, by outlasting him, by turning defense into offense faster than anybody I have ever seen. He accomplished more in 2011 than Federer or Nadal ever did in a single year.

June 2012:

So here we are. For the fourth straight slam, Djokovic and Nadal are meeting in the finals. If Djokovic wins, he completes the "Djokovic slam," holding all four slam titles at once. If Nadal wins, he takes home a record seventh French Open title, passing Bjorn Borg and all but clinching "best clay-court player ever" status. Nadal has been incredible over the past fortnight; he has not dropped a set, and he has barely come close to losing one, dropping just 35 games in 15 sets. Djokovic, meanwhile, has looked downright mortal. He dropped the first two sets of his fourth-round match against Andreas Seppi before rallying, and he had to fend off four match points before defeating Jo-Wilifried Tsonga in the quarterfinals. He did weather some windy conditions and take out Federer in straight sets in the semis, but still, this is quite easily Nadal's best opportunity to chalk up another slam title. Following a five-set loss to Djokovic in Australia, he has won the last two meetings of the series, and he is 11-2 all-time versus Djokovic on clay. This series has seen quite a few plot twists in recent years, and another one might await on Sunday.

Also June 2012:

As John McEnroe noted on Sunday, just three games into their finals matchup, Nadal was playing so well that he already had Djokovic second-guessing every shot he took. Nadal was hitting deep, and his defense was simply incredible. Yes, his game slipped a bit after that opening flurry of haymakers (after winning the first three games of the match, he dropped the next three and only won the first set, 6-4), and yes, his game slipped quite a bit when the rain made the balls heavier and harder to spin. But it is pretty clear that, to beat Nadal in a best-of-five match on clay, you need two different things going for you: You need him to lose his form for a few different stretches of the match, and you need to absolutely destroy the ball. […] It takes a superhuman effort, and Djokovic didn't have that in him in the finals.

So here we are again. It's still rather annoying that Nadal and Djokovic are facing off in the semifinals instead of the finals, but that's long been a moot point. As expected, they've reached the semifinals mostly with ease -- Nadal dropped a couple of sets early, and Djokovic was sluggish early in his fourth-round match with Philipp Kohlschreiber, but both looked fantastic in the quarterfinals, and neither was seriously on the ropes through their first five matches.

Nadal v. Djokovic at slams
2006 French Open (Clay): Nadal 6-4, 6-4, RETIRE
2007 French Open (Clay): Nadal 7-5, 6-4, 6-2
2007 Wimbledon (Grass): Nadal 3-6, 6-1, 4-1, RETIRE
2008 French Open (Clay): Nadal 6-4, 6-2, 7-6
2008 Beijing Olympics (Hard): Nadal 6-4, 1-6, 6-4
2010 U.S. Open (Hard): Nadal 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2
2011 Wimbledon (Grass): Djokovic 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3
2011 U.S. Open (Hard): Djokovic 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1
2012 Australian Open (Hard): Djokovic 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5
2012 French Open (Clay): Nadal 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5

Biggest factor for both Djokovic and Nadal: The second serve. When Nadal beat Djokovic in last year's French Open final, Nadal won 53 percent of his own second-serve points and 56 percent of Djokovic's. When Djokovic beat Nadal in Monte Carlo in April, Djokovic won 60 percent of his own second-serve points and 69 percent of Nadal's. Nadal's serve has been a little bit on the flaky side at times recently, and that has to give Djokovic at least a little bit of hope.

The bottom line is that, even on clay, very little separates these two players. The rallies are going to be long and arduous, and while Nadal still holds a bit of an advantage on clay because of his speed and his wicked spin, any easy points that can be scored off of the opponent's second serve -- or, to put it another way, any blown opportunities to dictate a point with one's first serve -- will be enormous.

Prediction: Nadal in 4. We know what we're getting here. It's going to be a bloodbath, and if Nadal's serve is even a little bit wonky, Djokovic could break enough to hand Nadal his second-ever loss in the French Open. But even with Djokovic's straight-set win in Monte Carlo, how do you pick against Nadal in Paris?

(This run really is amazing, by the way. Nadal misses the 2004 French Open while barely ranked in the ATP Top 50. In the first three months of 2005, he surges from 51st to 17th. By the French Open, he's fifth in the world. He draws the four seed, drops two sets on the way to the final, and beats former and future doper Mariano Puerta in the finals. Eight years later, he's lost one match there. One. In his most successful nine-year run at Wimbledon, Pete Sampras lost twice.)

David Ferrer vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Matchup Seed AB Rank AB Clay Rank Head-to-Head Wins Head-to-Head on Clay Avg. opp. Rank (AB clay) % of games won thus far
Ferrer 4 4 3 2 1 55.0 71.7%
Tsonga 6 8 16 1 0 39.0 66.0%

Of the eight combined semifinalists in the men's and women's draws, seven were ranked in the top four of the Advanced Baseline clay rankings. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was not. Of course he wasn't. Clay has long been Tsonga's worst surface; he's reached the semifinals of the hardcourt Australian Open twice (finals once), and he's reached the semis twice in a row on grass at Wimbledon. But in five tries, he has only once advanced past the fourth round at his home slam. Hell, in the three clay court Masters tournaments (Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome), he's made one semifinal in 14 tries. There wasn't much reason to think he'd be able to both advance past a tricky set of early-round opponents (Jarkko Nieminen and Jeremy Chardy are both Top 40 on clay) and withstand Roger Federer to reach the semifinals, but here he is. He has yet to drop a set this fortnight, and he has been taken to even 5-5 just three times in 15 sets. He has cruised.

In terms of full, five-match form, only one player can perhaps top what Tsonga has achieved to date: David Ferrer. The 31-year-old bulldog from Valencia has been taken to 5-5 just once in 15 sets, and as the competition has improved, so has he. He lost just five games in a straight-set win over Kevin Anderson in the fourth round, then dropped just four to Tommy Robredo in the quarterfinals. He has completed one clay-court masterpiece after another, neutralizing big serves and winning every rally. Hell, in his win over Robredo, he served quite poorly, landing just 47 percent of his first serves and double-faulting three times. No matter: He won 67 percent of his second-serve points and broke Robredo seven times in 11 service games. Tsonga is much more powerful than Robredo, but he isn't stronger than Anderson, who managed just five aces and was broken six times by Ferrer.

Ferrer v. Tsonga all-time
2010 Rome (Clay): Ferrer 6-4, 6-1
2011 Wimbledon (Grass): Tsonga 6-3, 6-4, 7-6
2012 Paris (Hard): Ferrer 6-2, 7-5

Biggest factor for Ferrer: Rallies. Ferrer is going to win a majority of them, but Tsonga isn't going to create enough easy points to pull off this match without winning his share. If Ferrer is playing peak-level defense and preventing Tsonga from getting easy looks at winners, it's difficult to see Tsonga avoiding eventual errors, even New Tsonga.

Biggest factor for Tsonga: That first serve. Tsonga was in a superhuman rhythm against Federer in the quarterfinals, landing 75 percent of his first serve and winning 81 percent of his first-serve points. When he beat Ferrer at Wimbledon, he landed 65 percent and won 92 percent of his first-serve points, and while that was on grass and absolutely will not happen on clay, he needs to keep those numbers at Federer levels. He's going to need as many easy points as possible, and Ferrer's going to pick apart his second serve.

Prediction: Ferrer in 4. There are two conflicting "It's his year" narratives going right now; for each of these players, it feels like destiny to reach the finals and hope to steal a title against the tired Djokovic-Nadal winner. But Ferrer's steadier and has been playing at an elite level on clay for longer than a week and a half. The Tsonga who crushed Federer could have a chance at winning the whole thing, but odds are in Ferrer's favor here.

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