Novak Djokovic survived a brief comeback bid from Ernests Gulbis to earn a four-set victory (6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3) and a place in the championship match of the 2014 French Open, where he will face either Andy Murray or Rafael Nadal.
Gulbis, the No. 18 seed, doesn't lack talent. The tennis world has been waiting for the 25-year-old Latvian to start making a bigger impact on the Grand Slam stage for several years. Yet, a quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros in 2008 remained his best result at a major until now.
Djokovic, the No. 2 seed, realized the challenge coming into the match. Pritha Sarkar of Reuters passed along comments from the 27-year-old Serbian, who's known Gulbis since their days at the Niki Pilic Tennis Academy. Djokovic said an improved work rate has made the difference:
He wasn't really committed to work hard. But now that's changing for him. (In the last two rounds) he has won against Roger (Federer), won against Tomas (Berdych).
He plays really well. He has a huge serve that if it goes in can give him a lot of advantage over the opponent.
Gulbis was coming off, as Djokovic mentioned, a couple of marquee wins. Beating players like Federer and Berdych in back-to-back matches showcased consistency he hadn't previous shown in the biggest tournaments.
Gulbis had a couple of looks to take an early lead in the opening set. He couldn't convert either of his break-point opportunities, however, and Djokovic took advantage.
The six-time major champion is looking to complete the career Grand Slam. He's appeared supremely motivated throughout the tournament, perhaps buoyed by a victory over Rafael Nadal in the Rome Masters during the build-up to the French Open.
Djokovic earned a break to edge ahead 3-2 in the first set and consolidated it in the next game. Andrew Burton of Tennis World noted the match didn't have much rhythm in the early going, with plenty of errors from both players:
Not exactly a classic. Djokovic leads 4-3 with a break. Short points ending in UFEs.— Andrew Burton (@burtonad) June 6, 2014
Djokovic started playing better, especially on serve, as the set went on. He was then able to score another break to close out the opening set 6-3. Gulbis had 15 unforced errors to Djokovic's eight.
Tom Perrotta of The Wall Street Journal noted the Serbian star's resolute play:
Gulbis pushing hard to stay with Djokovic, who is hanging back, doing his thing, not missing, humming along. Absurdly steady.— Tom Perrotta (@TomPerrotta) June 6, 2014
Barry Flatman of the Sunday Times added that the set wouldn't make any highlight reels:
Routine & rather mundane 1st set sees Djokovic get the better of Gulbis 63. Apart from that, nothing much to say. Let's hope it brightens up— Barry Flatman (@Barry_FlatmanST) June 6, 2014
A more experienced Gulbis realized he couldn't keep giving so many free points away. He started affording himself a little more margin for error right away in the second set, and it allowed him to remain more competitive.
Still, he was unable to make any serious inroads on the Djokovic serve. Those easy holds allowed the favorite to save more energy for the return games, and he finally broke through to take a 5-3 lead in the second set.
Gulbis did get the next game to deuce with a chance to break back, but Djokovic rose to the occasion on the key points once again to close out the set on serve.
Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times pointed out that Djokovic was simply surviving Gulbis' bouts of inspired play and going on the attack when his inconsistent foe was sloppy:
Novak Djokovic now leads 6-3, 6-3, one set from his second French Open final. Comfortable as expected. Steady through Gulbis' flashes. #RG14— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) June 6, 2014
Down two sets against Djokovic, Gulbis started ripping shots off both wings while still trying to give himself some margin for error.
It could have easily turned into a string of errors that allowed Djokovic to close out the match with ease. Instead, the shots were falling in and the defensive tactics employed by the No. 2 player in the world were no longer enough.
Just like in the previous set, the key game came at 4-3, this time with Gulbis leading. He was finally able to convert a break chance on his sixth try of the match. It came at a perfect time, because he only needed to hold his serve once more to close out the set.
He did exactly that, creating a little doubt after it seemed like Djokovic was set to cruise into the final. However, Carole Bouchard of L'Equipe tweeted that Gulbis appeared to be dealing with some back pain throughout his comeback bid:
6-3 Gulbis despite stretching back here and there. Djokovic gets out of court. Too tentative and nervous right now. Needs to dictate this.— Carole Bouchard (@carole_bouchard) June 6, 2014
Neil Harman of The Times thought the weather may have played a role in Djokovic's drop in play:
Warmest day of event by far. Djoko not moving well. Heavy in the legs. Gulbis has a chance here if he really believes.— Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes) June 6, 2014
Right away in the fourth set, it appeared Djokovic was going to start pulling away. A quick break gave him a 2-0 lead. Give credit to Gulbis for keeping a level head. He was able to break right back to get on serve again, which caused Djokovic to smash his racket.
Perhaps the biggest surprise as Gulbis continued to fight back was how many points he was winning from neutral positions. Usually that's when the four-time Australian Open champion shines, but the first-time semifinalist was going toe-to-toe with him and hitting some impressive winners deep in points.
For the third straight set, it was the 4-3 game that proved vital. Djokovic was able to play a very solid return game, and Gulbis missed a couple of shots he had been making for the previous set-and-a-half, leading to the break.
Djokovic proceeded to close out the match without any drama in his final service game.
Piers Newbery of BBC Sports noted Djokovic should be happy to have gotten off court without needing a fifth set, given the tough conditions:
A glimpse toward the final shows Djokovic will play the winner of the second semifinal featuring the aforementioned Nadal and Andy Murray. The expectation throughout the tournament has been a Nadal vs. Djokovic final, and it's now just one match from coming to fruition.
Who's your pick to win the French Open title?
The top two seeds have faced off more than 40 times, with the Spaniard holding a slight 22-19 advantage, including a memorable five-set triumph in last year's French Open semifinal. Djokovic did win that most recent meeting in Rome to make it four straight victories in the rivalry, though.
While that's the match most tennis fans want to see, Djokovic certainly wouldn't complain if Murray pulled off the upset. He holds a 12-8 edge in their prior meetings, and the Scot obviously doesn't have the Roland Garros credentials of Nadal, an eight-time champion.