While much of the attention at the 2014 French Open semifinals will be on the battle between Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, the second match between Novak Djokovic and Ernests Gulbis will be just as good.
Djokovic is seeking the career Grand Slam after falling short at Roland Garros in the past few years. After beating Nadal on clay recently, he has the confidence necessary to knock off the reigning champion.
Meanwhile, Gulbis is playing the best tennis of his career en route to his first Grand Slam semifinal. He upset Roger Federer in Round 4 before dominating Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinal. If he can keep up this level of play, he can beat anyone in the world.
Either player has the ability to advance to the French Open final as long as he follows these keys to victory.
Continue Second-Serve Dominance
When you win five matches in a Grand Slam while only dropping a single set, it is clear you are playing some great tennis. However, this does not do it justice.
Djokovic has a bunch of impressive statistics from this tournament, but the most impressive mark might be his second-serve wins in the past two matches. He won 77 percent of second-serve points in the fourth round against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before winning 74 percent of these points against Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals.
Even though the speed of the serve drops, he still puts it in a perfect place to make sure it is not an easy return. From that point, he is good enough to finish off the point.
This is something Djokovic has to keep up against Gulbis, who is good but not great on his returns.
The last time these two played was in 2011, with Djokovic winning 6-0, 6-1 at Indian Wells. In that match, the Serbian star won 13 of 19 second-serve points to make sure he dominated throughout.
At Roland Garros, the No. 2 seed will make sure he has little drop-off after missing on the first serve to help him advance to the final.
Win the Important Points
It is obviously a player's goal to win every point of every match, but this is virtually impossible. Instead, a true champion has to find a way to get the important points that decide games and sets.
In his dominant win over Tsonga, Djokovic was able to close out games by winning seven of his nine break points. The match against Raonic was much closer because he was only able to go 3-of-9 on these points.
These types of points require an increase of focus and intensity to come through in clutch moments. As Louisa Thomas of Grantland points out, this is where new coach Boris Becker can help out:
Djokovic’s game has no glaring weaknesses that Becker could obviously address. Becker was famous for his competitive fire, his ruthlessness — his self-involvement, not his strokes.
But that, I think, is what Boris Becker is all about. Djokovic has said that he hired Becker as his new head coach to help him in those one or two moments when he was faltering.
This has led to some success in this tournament, as noted by Tennis Now:
Djokovic wins the last two--and biggest two--points of the set to break Raonic and close it out 7-5. Clutch playing from the Serb. #RG14— TennisNow (@Tennis_Now) June 3, 2014
It only gets tougher from here on out, though, and Djokovic will need to keep coming through in these difficult situations. He needs a combination of competitive fire while also maintaining focus to get the points that will win the match.
Get First Serves In
Gulbis has shown all year long that he can be dominant with his first serve, but he sees a dramatic drop when he does not get it in play. For the season, he has won 78 percent of his first-serve points but only 49 percent on his second serves.
He has been even better throughout the French Open, topping these numbers in four of his five matches. Richard Pagliaro of Tennis.com notes how good the serve was in his most recent contest:
The problem is that he still is much worse when he is forced to slow down his serve to get it in play. With his inconsistent accuracy on the first serve, this is a much bigger issue.
Djokovic has made a career out of jumping on opponents' second serves. He has won 56 percent of such points in 2014 and will have no problem keeping this up in the semifinal.
If Gulbis wants to win, he will need to avoid giving Djokovic the opportunity to win these points by dominating the first serve and winning games.
Believe You Can Win
So much of success in sports is confidence. Gulbis has lacked it in the past, and it has led mostly to failure in big events.
At this tournament, though, the Latvian star is on an impressive run, and it seems like he cannot be stopped. In order to keep winning, he needs to believe he has the ability to get it done.
Unfortunately, his coach is not helping his cause. According to Tom Perrotta of the Wall Street Journal, Gunther Bresnik was low on Gulbis' chances in this match:
"My guy has no chance against Djokovic," Gunther Bresnik said. "I told him this. I am honest." Our look at Gulbis: http://t.co/Zg8BGqBZKb— Tom Perrotta (@TomPerrotta) June 5, 2014
The good news is that the player himself is a bit more confident. He recently explained that his previous records against Djokovic mean nothing, saying, "The way I'm playing now, I never played like this. I never felt like this. What was in the past I don't even consider. I beat him once, also in a bad match. It's 0-0 for me," via ATPWorldTour.com.
If he knows he can win, he will be able to pull out tough points and remain competitive throughout the match. If it is close late, who knows what can happen.
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