French Open 2013 Men's Semifinals: Why Nadal vs. Djokovic Is Must-See TV

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJune 5, 2013

June 11, 2012; Paris, FRANCE; Rafael Nadal (ESP) wins his seventh French Open title by defeating Novak Djokovic (SRB) 6-4 6-3 2-6 7-5 on day 16 of the 2012 French Open. Credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports
Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, the men's French Open can begin. 

On Friday, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will face off in the semifinals of the French Open. It won't be for the trophy, but it might as well be. The winner of this match will be the heavy favorite in the final against either David Ferrer or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

That's because Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are the two best players in the world.

Nadal vs. Djokovic is the best rivalry in men's tennis. And it might just be the best rivalry in sports.

Nadal leads the head-to-head, 19-15, but Djokovic is the only player to beat him three times on clay—including the last time they faced off two months ago at the ATP Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters.

Nadal scheduled his entire comeback from a seven-month injury layoff around being in peak condition for the French Open. He wants to prove that he is really back. He wants to keep his crown as the King of Clay. He wants his eighth French Open trophy.

Djokovic, playing in honor of his first coach who passed away earlier this tournament, wants to reestablish his dominance and complete his career slam.

Immovable object, meet irresistible force.

Djokovic and Nadal have grown up on tour together. They've challenged each other at every turn. Less than a year apart in age, they have turned the tennis tour into their personal stomping grounds.

Yes, they're proud members of the Big Four, but right now, they're also a cut above everyone else. 

Roger Federer is still dangerous, but on the decline. Andy Murray is great, but sporadic. When healthy, Nadal and Djokovic are the constants. 

This isn't just tennis for these guys. It's personal. Their relationship—both on the court and off—has evolved throughout the years. 

This match feels a bit different than their previous 34. In the last year, we've seen both of them struggle. We've seen that they are human.

After winning his seventh French Open crown last year, Nadal has gone through the worst period of his career. He was upset by Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon, and then began withdrawing from tournament after tournament due to ongoing knee troubles.

Djokovic is the No. 1 player in the world, but he hasn't necessarily looked that way at times this year. He has suffered bad losses to Tommy Haas, Juan Martin del Potro, Grigor Dimitrov and Tomas Berdych. He's looked vulnerable and unfocused too often for comfort.

Blazing through the French Open draw to get to the semifinals has done a lot to restore his top-dog image, but his work is not done. He still has to get through his biggest rival, and he's going to have to dig deep to do it.

Whereas Federer-Nadal in the peak years was about a contrast in styles, Nadal-Djokovic is more a battle of wills. The rallies are never-ending, the nerves never-cracking and the defense never-relenting. 

It's blood-curdling, logic-defying, jaw-dropping gladiator tennis. 

It was their 2009 meeting in the semifinals of Madrid that set the stage for what their rivalry would eventually become. It was a four-hour, three-set epic that saw Nadal save three match points and triumph, 3-6, 7-6, 7-6

Djokovic soon turned the tables on the rivalry and won seven straight finals over Nadal in a streak that spanned 2011 and 2012, including three straight Grand Slams. But as the dynamics shifted, the quality of tennis only improved.

The third set of their U.S. Open match in 2011 was one of the best sets of tennis ever played. Their six-hour marathon match in the 2012 Australian Open final was so exhausting, so draining, so excruciatingly entertaining that they both ended up cramping up during the trophy presentation and had to be given chairs.

Every time they meet, the stakes seem higher, the rallies seem longer and the shots seem bolder. It's a rivalry where both men are in their prime, both men wear their heart on their sleeve and both men have what it takes.

This is the match that everyone has been waiting for. 

That's not meant to diminish the other players in the field. There were spectacular matches this fortnight, such as Tommy Haas vs. John Isner and Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Richard Gasquet. There were great stories, such as Gael Monfils taking out Tomas Berdych in front of his home crowd and Tommy Robredo coming back from two sets down in three straight matches.

But for the past two weeks, everything leading up to this moment—the moment that the Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal semifinal became a reality instead of just a probability—has felt like a formality. 

The warmup acts had their time to shine, but make no mistake about it. This is the main event.