The road to the French Open semifinals has featured as many displays of star power as it has upsets. With four apiece left in men's and women's singles play, they've shown how they could win it all, and we know any of them could easily fall in his or her next match.
On the men's side, the names are mostly familiar. Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have faced varying degrees of difficulty to make it this far—with Murray battling endlessly while the other two cruised. More and more fans are getting to know Ernests Gulbis now, too; after downing Roger Federer, Tomas Berdych was no match for the 18th-seeded player.
The remaining women have rode steady yet aggressive play thus far. Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova both have looked unbeatable at Roland Garros, but Eugenie Bouchard and Andrea Petkovic have both overcome double-digit seedings by playing their games fearlessly to overcome top-10 opponents.
The Parisian clay does not forgive slip-ups. Each of these eight players has proven his or her worth, but none of them will advance with less than his or her best performance.
(1) Rafael Nadal vs. (7) Andy Murray
On any other surface, in any other tournament, Murray could give Nadal a fantastic challenge—but not on clay, and not at a French Open that has been grueling for Murray.
His third-round match against Philipp Kohlschreiber was suspended midway through a fifth set tied at 7-7, finishing a day later when Murray escaped 12-10 to take the match. He followed that up by facing Fernando Verdasco without a full rest day, then took five sets to beat Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals, showing discomfort in his left thigh as he played.
Andy Murray definitely seems to be bothered by his left thigh. Has been holding it several times after points. #RG14— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) June 4, 2014
Contrast that with Nadal, who has been his usual dominant self.
Through the first four rounds of the tournament, Nadal did not drop a single set. Only when he drew a quarterfinal match with No. 5 David Ferrer, a formidable clay player in his own right, did Nadal have to exert himself. After Ferrer took the first set 6-4, Nadal blew him away, racing to wins in the next three sets to avoid a delayed finish and save his rest day.
At his best, Murray can push Nadal, too, if not seriously threaten the winner of eight of the past nine French Opens. This year, even pushing him might be a stretch.
(18) Ernests Gulbis vs. (2) Novak Djokovic
Though Gulbis certainly has a good deal of talent, 59 unforced Federer errors gave the upset a fluky vibe. Gulbis then followed up that five-set win by dismantling Berdych in straight sets, clearly demonstrating he was the best player on the court.
The number next to his name makes it seem like a bigger surprise than it is that Gulbis has advanced this far. When the new rankings come out, that will change.
RT @FueBuena With Monfils's defeat, Ernests Gulbis is guaranteed to be in the top 10 for the first time on Monday— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) June 4, 2014
But when he faces Djokovic, he will lose his advantage in terms of raw ability.
Djokovic is playing the best tennis of his already-sterling career, and he very likely would have already completed the career Grand Slam multiple times over in a world in which Nadal let other guys have a chance to win Roland Garros.
He's not going to give Gulbis the chance to take control, and he will look to turn Gulbis' aggression against him. Though it hasn't been the case at this tournament thus far, Gulbis' attacking style often results in him racking up unforced errors of his own, which would spell death against the Djoker.
(7) Maria Sharapova vs. (18) Eugenie Bouchard
Even after a scare in the quarters, it's difficult to doubt Sharapova given the way she has played.
Maria Sharapova is 18-1 over last 3 years at French Open (won 2012 title, lost 2013 final to Serena Williams); 18-3 in Grand Slam quarters.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 3, 2014
Unseeded Garbine Muguruza won the first set 6-1 and had Sharapova one game away from losing in straight sets, only for Sharapova to power back and power through the rest of the match, winning 1-6, 7-5, 6-1.
When Sharapova is in control, or once she wrests it from her opponent, she dominates. She has been known for her grunting before, but the story from Roland Garros has been different: Sharapova is screaming after points, feeding off her success.
As ESPN.com reported following her fourth-round win over Samantha Stosur:
There are so many emotions you go through in a match, and then there are always moments where you feel a bit of a momentum change," the seventh-seeded Sharapova said. "I think you feel a lot more as a player than maybe a spectator.
Bouchard has made it this far by keeping opponents off balance with a quick-hitting, unorthodox pace and style of play. That approach earned her a straight-sets win over No. 8 Angelique Kerber, but will not be as reliable against a supremely confident Sharapova. If she gets into a rhythm, it's over.
(4) Simona Halep vs. (28) Andrea Petkovic
The highest seed remaining on the women's side, Petkovic advanced to the semis by drawing an unexpectedly favorable matchup against Sara Errani.
Seeded 10th, Errani is usually very comfortable on clay, but she entered her quarterfinal match, by her own admission, at too low of an energy level to compete with Petkovic, who played aggressively and punished Errani when she could not respond.
Sara Errani says lack of energy was the problem, doesn't rule out that her feudings with Italian media this week may have drained her. #RG14— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) June 4, 2014
The French Open's clay courts necessitate stamina. If a player lacks the endurance to run up from the baseline for weak bounces on point after point, defeat will come quickly.
Halep won't suffer that same fate.
She hasn't dropped a single set at this French Open, cruising through all five of her matches, harnessing her superior, somewhat deceptive talent to play nearly mistake-free tennis. If Petkovic tries to win with aggression, Halep's quickness will neutralize her opponent's passing shots, and she's a more powerful hitter than her small size makes her out to be.
No one has come remotely close to unsettling Halep at Roland Garros. Petkovic has played impressively to make the semis, but she won't, either.