There have been many upsets in the first 10 days of the French Open, but despite all of that carnage, the two favorites for the men's title are still standing. Is there anyone left who could stop Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic?
Well, the other four men remaining in the single's draw would like to think so.
Djokovic played his quarterfinal match on Tuesday, and the Serbian took out the tricky Canadian Milos Raonic 7-5, 7-6, 6-4. Now Djokovic, who is looking for his first French Open title, will face No. 18 Ernests Gulbis in the semifinals on Friday.
The top half of the draw will play its quarterfinal matches on Wednesday. Nadal will face off against his opponent in last year's final, No. 5 David Ferrer, while No. 7 Andy Murray and No. 23 Gael Monfils will battle for the the final semifinal spot.
So it's up to Gulbis, Ferrer, Murray or Monfils to get in the way of Nadal and Djokovic's 42nd meeting, their sixth at Roland Garros.
While some are certainly rooting for a chance to see a new face in the French Open final, many would hate to be denied another Nadal-Djokovic epic. Chuck Culpepper of Sports on Earth breaks down why:
Nadal-Djokovic would make Sunday morning must-watch TV instead of must-sort-of-pay-fleeting-attention-while-doing-something-else TV. The reasons for this do pile up. When the least compelling reason is the rematch factor from a mind-blowing Roland Garros semifinal in 2013, the futuristic, 55-game clash of humongous hearts that Nadal won 9-7 in the fifth, you know you have a heap of good reasons. When the second-least is somebody (Nadal) pursuing a ninth title at one Grand Slam (extending a record there) and potentially improving his won-lost at the French to 66-1, another significance must be very significant.
Who has the best shot of getting in the way of the showdown? Let's start by looking at Nadal's half of the draw, since there are more contenders remaining on that side. His quarterfinal opponent, Ferrer, has a 6-21 head-to-head record against Nadal, signaling that Ferrer certainly has the capability of rattling his fellow countryman.
Ferrer has won two of his last three matches against Nadal, including a 7-6, 6-4 victory on clay earlier this season in the quarterfinals of the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters. He's also beaten Nadal in two majors: the 2011 Australian Open quarterfinals and the 2007 U.S. Open fourth round.
After his fourth-round victory, Ferrer broke down how to defeat Nadal. Via Paul Sassoon of UbiTennis.com:
You have to be aggressive, to play well. You have to adopt game plan, the right tactics. Of course, it’s important not to commit errors or mistakes, and you have to sustain the pace of Rafa’s shots all along the match.
But at Roland Garros, that is much easier said than done. Nadal has taken out Ferrer the last two years on the clay in Paris, in the semifinals in 2012 and the final last year. In both of those matches, Ferrer failed to win more than three games off of Nadal in any set. Nadal is just the better player on clay; before his loss to Ferrer in Monte Carlo this year, Nadal had defeated him in 17 straight clay-court matches.
While Ferrer does have the ability to challenge Nadal occasionally—something that many players don't have—it's unlikely that lightning will strike twice this clay season for Ferrer, especially since Nadal has been improving steadily throughout the last 10 months.
If Nadal makes it through Ferrer in the quarterfinals like he should, he would face either Murray or Monfils in the semifinals. (Their quarterfinal match on Wednesday is a true toss-up; Murray is the steadier and more accomplished player by far, but Monfils loves clay and will have the French crowd behind him.)
Nadal has a winning record against Murray and Monfils, but both players have gotten the best of him in the past. Monfils is 2-10 against the world No. 1, with both of his wins coming at the January hard-court event in Doha. Murray is a slightly better 5-14 against Nadal, and he took a set off of Nadal in their quarterfinal battle in Rome last month. However, it's hard to see either Murray or Monfils taking out Nadal in a best-of-five match on clay.
So, Nadal is the heavy favorite to make the final on his side of the draw—in fact, his back might be his most dangerous opponent.
That leaves Gulbis. He's the only man left who can prevent Djokovic from making it to the final. After upsetting Roger Federer in the fourth round, the engaging and enigmatic Latvian took out No. 6 Tomas Berdych in straight sets in their surprisingly straightforward quarterfinal showdown on Tuesday.
Gulbis has always had the talent to challenge the top players in the world, he just hasn't always been able to put it all together. However, the 25-year-old is currently ranked No. 17 in the world and is playing the best tennis of his career. He is on a nine-match winning streak after winning a title in Nice the week before Roland Garros.
Gulbis is 1-4 in his career against Djokovic, with his lone win coming in 2009 on hard courts. The last time Gulbis advanced to the French Open quarterfinals, way back in 2008, Djokovic defeated him in three close sets.
This focused and serious Gulbis is a revelation for the tennis world, and it's still uncertain how high the ceiling is for him. With his potential, it's likely that he has the best shot of playing the spoiler role and taking out Djokovic in the semifinals if he can keep his game (and, most importantly, his mind) sharp during their match. The two days off in-between his quarterfinal and semifinal might backfire, giving him too much time to lose focus.
Overall, Djokovic and Nadal have a 14-49 record against their potential roadblocks to the final and are undoubtedly the heavy favorites to make it there. Could there be an upset? Of course there could be. We now live in a wonderful world where Stanislas Wawrinka has a major championship. Stranger things have happened in tennis.
However, it's going to take either a titanic performance from a challenger or an unfortunate injury to Nadal or Djokovic for the seemingly inevitable to be stopped.
If you want to go ahead and pencil Nadal vs. Djokovic onto your calendar for Sunday, nobody would blame you.
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