Federer and Djokovic Win Epics, Now Play for the French Open Final

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Federer and Djokovic Win Epics, Now Play for the French Open Final
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal must be happy now.

For the second round in a row, the two men touted as his biggest challengers were nearly booted out of the tournament.

Novak Djokovic came the closest. Having survived a two-set deficit to Andreas Seppi in the fourth round, he had to save four match points to defeat Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the most dramatic match of the tournament yet, 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6, 6-1. 

World No. 3 Roger Federer didn't have it any easier, having to come back from two-set to love down for only the eighth time in his career against Juan Martin Del Potro, 3-6, 6-7, 6-2, 6-0, 6-3. 

It has been a veritable ordeal of a tournament so far on this half of the draw.

On paper, it should to have been smooth sailing for Federer and Djokovic, but it became a marathon.

Federer made hard work of lucky losers and qualifiers just to get into the quarters, while Djokovic, who dominated until the fourth round, suddenly felt the pinch of expectation, and in his last two rounds has appeared mortal and very beatable.

For Federer, it may have been a case of not having been used to the caliber of Del Potro.

His first four opponents—Kamke, Ungur, Mahut and Goffin—all had tennis talent, but none of the sheer power and pace of shot of the Argentine. It showed for almost two sets, when Federer struggled to come to grips with Del Potro's elephantine groundstrokes.

When he started to raise his game, elevating his first serve percentage and cleaning up the errors, he also rediscovered that rare weapon, belief.

The combinations that had won him 11 matches against Del Potro returned, and Federer entered a different mental realm. The determined, killer (as Monfils described it in 2009) focus was back.

Novak Djokovic's recent trials are slightly harder to qualify.

He was expected to raise his game steeply after escaping against Seppi, and he did that for a set and a half against Tsonga, who, while slightly flat, found himself down a set and 2-4 before waking up.

The part which must have been disturbing, nonetheless, is that Djokovic allowed him not only to reclaim his serve and status in the set, but to actually win it, and the third and very nearly the fourth.

So, it wasn't as if it was going to be a straightforward business against Tsonga, against whom he only narrowly led 5-4 in their head-to-head.

But Djokovic let slip crucial points and leads, and while he will be heartened in having courageously faced down four match points in the fourth set, he will know that similar lapses are likely to spell disaster against the likes of Federer or Nadal.

From a tactical and mental perspective, Djokovic's naturally fluent aggressive tennis has found two unusual roadblocks at Roland Garros—the slower clay, and the pressure of winning a fourth consecutive Grand Slam.

Pressure brings with it urgency, and a certain desperation to rid oneself of it, which the slow clay gives Djokovic too much to think about at times.

What we see as poor tennis is often at this highest of levels simply poor judgement, and poor shot selection. One does note, on the positive side however, that Djokovic for the majority of the match was the one bossing Tsonga helter-skelter.

There will thus be, for the second straight year, a Federer-Djokovic semifinal treat.

Djokovic probably holds the advantage on the baseline, but Federer has the variety to even up such shortcomings. There is enough talent between these two, however, that it will probably come down to the basics—hold serve, and attack the return. 

So far in this tournament, they have both written and acted out remarkably memorable scripts—Djokovic that of the imperiled, but undefeated emulator of Rod Laver.

And Federer, that of the 2009 hero, doubted but eager for vindication. His opposition, like those three years ago, was relatively humble, but battling through them he also had to face a rematch of his semifinal against Del Potro, who looked to reverse the result of 2009. 

There is also a third—Rafael Nadal, the undisputed master of clay, who in cruising where his rivals have been bruising, seems to be reenacting his unparalleled dominance of 2008.

They are all coming to a dramatic climax in a few days' time, and we are doubtless eager to see who will be there to write the ending.

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