French Open 2014 Semifinals: Breaking Down Intriguing Matchups on Men's Side

Timothy RappFeatured ColumnistJune 5, 2014

Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates winning the quarterfinal match of the French Open tennis tournament against compatriot David Ferrer at the Roland Garros stadium, in Paris, France, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. Nadal won in four sets 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, 6-1. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Michel Euler/Associated Press

This year's French Open semifinals don't quite feature the "Big Four" in men's tennis, but they sure come close. Once again, star power has generally reigned supreme at a Grand Slam.

But while Ernests Gulbis has crashed the party at the expense of Roger Federer, the matchups are still wildly intriguing. Could Gulbis follow in the footsteps of Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open and win a surprising title?

Perhaps, but he's not in the final yet. Let's take a closer look at both of the very intriguing semifinals.

Rafael Nadal vs. Andy Murray

It's hard to believe that the only person to beat Rafael Nadal in the French Open was Robin Soderling in Round 4 of the 2009 tournament, but such has been his dominance. You know the stats by now—eight of the last nine titles at Roland Garros, an astonishing 64-1 record on the court. It boggles the mind.

So good was Nadal in his quarterfinal match against David Ferrer after dropping the first set that the latter admitted to Christopher Clarey of The New York Times“I threw in the towel. It’s not something I usually do, but I sensed I could not come back.”

This is the same player, Ferrer, who beat Nadal on the clay at Monte Carlo. But there's just something special about Nadal on that Roland Garros clay, and Ferrer was not immune to those cosmic powers at work.

So can Andy Murray—who has traditionally had his struggles on clay but has now reached the semifinals of this tournament for the second time—end the Nadal dominance?

It seems unlikely. Nadal is 14-5 in his career against Murray, 5-0 versus him on clay and won the only meeting between the two at the French Open (in 2011). Nadal has dropped one set in the entire tournament; Murray has dropped five. Nadal is basically an honorary Frenchman with the crowd at this point, but Murray didn't make any friends with the Parisians when he knocked out Gael Monfils.

Add it all up, and Nadal seems the likely winner. This French Open has been full of more twists and turns than a season of Lost, of course, so Nadal losing would fit the general theme established this year. But history suggests that Nadal will overcome the strange voodoo that has produced upset after upset this year.

Novak Djokovic vs. Ernests Gulbis

Michel Spingler/Associated Press

It's been an interesting tournament for Gulbis. On one hand, he didn't make many friends with his unfortunate take on female tennis players. On the other hand, he's played some truly excellent tennis up to this point, knocking out the No. 4 seed Roger Federer in a five-set marathon and No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych in a straight-set clinic.

It would be unwise to underestimate a player with wins over top competition like that in his past two matches. It would be equally unwise to underestimate Novak Djokovic. 

The Serbian superstar has lost just one set thus far, and he has looked like the most likely player to unseat Nadal from his French Open throne to this point. It is worth noting that he beat Nadal in their last two matches.

It's also worth nothing that he's 4-1 against Gulbis and beat him on their only matchup on clay at the 2008 French Open. 

Much of this match will come down to Gulbis' service game versus Djokovic's impressive return game. Gulbis was on point in that regard against Berdych, but Djokovic will provide his own challenge, as Clarey wrote:

Berdych is one of the most dangerous players on any surface when he is stable when he swings. But he is not as effective at improvisation.

He bemoaned his own play afterward, but much of it had to do with Gulbis, who was particularly effective serving to Berdych’s body and countering his baseline blasts. If Gulbis can serve, move and strike the ball as well as he did on Tuesday, he has a chance to beat anyone.

But Djokovic will pose much greater challenges with his excellent returns, his large power-hitting zone and his phenomenal court coverage that will make it all too easy for Gulbis to go for too much himself on Friday. It will also be strength against strength on the backhand diagonal, a pattern that Gulbis can often dominate.

Gulbis has been on a magical run, but he'll run into a player that makes a habit of appearing in semifinals (Gulbis has reached his first at a Grand Slam). Prevailing logic will suggest that Djokovic cruises to victory, but Gulbis' recent play has defied logic.

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