The final many anticipated before the start of the 2014 French Open has come to fruition. The best clay court player of all time will face the stiffest challenge of his Roland Garros career, as top-seeded Rafael Nadal will meet second-seeded Novak Djokovic in a matchup the tennis world has craved.
While Nadal cruised in a romp over Andy Murray, Djokovic had some difficulties with Ernests Gulbis. For a brief spell Friday afternoon, Gulbis threatened to upset the seemingly preordained meeting with gritty play and shot-making.
In the end, however, the two best clay court players in the world won out. There will be time to look ahead to the final, but first, let's take a deeper look at the penultimate round and see what the semifinals might mean going forward.
|(2) Novak Djokovic vs. (18) Ernests Gulbis||Djokovic 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3|
|(1) Rafael Nadal vs. (7) Andy Murray||Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-1|
After the first two sets, it appeared the Serbian star would barely need to break a sweat. Gulbis committed numerous forehand errors and double faults, clearly showing his frustration and his inconsistent play. With Djokovic barely challenged on his own serve, it seemed as though his path to the final was preordained.
However, the third set revealed plenty of flaws to that theory. Gulbis' backhand briefly took over the match, finally earning a decisive break on his sixth break point of the set. With 19 winners and just five unforced errors, Gulbis not only demonstrated his potential, but what could befall Djokovic if he does not take advantage of his chances against Nadal.
Fortunately for the No. 2 seed, his superior service game saved him in the match. Djokovic served at a 67 percent clip and was extremely efficient when given a chance to break, taking five of 10 break-point opportunities. Conversely, while his opponent matched his form at times, Gulbis got just 57 percent of his first serves in, and won only two of seven break points.
Indeed, it appeared Djokovic had started to falter a bit under the sweltering Parisian sun. Though he rallied as Gulbis' error-prone tendencies reappeared, Nadal is unlikely to gift him with 44 unforced errors. After the win, Djokovic admitted that he fatigued significantly toward the end of the match:
Djokovic tells Gimelstob that in the third set he "suddenly started feeling physically not so great ... It was an even match until the end."— Romi Cvitkovic (@RomiCvitkovic) June 6, 2014
Djokovic will now receive an opportunity to complete the career Grand Slam and insert himself into the same historic context as Nadal and Roger Federer. For the 27-year-old, there has never been a better time to seize the moment at Roland Garros.
In dropping just six games, Rafael Nadal sent a convincing message that he remains the favorite, despite his recent showings against Djokovic.
Despite Murray's progress on clay, the British star never even sniffed a realistic shot at victory against Nadal. The lefty won an astounding 91 percent of his first-serve points, and was a merciless 6-of-6 on break points. As Nadal suggested after the match, he harbors a quiet confidence going into the final:
Rafael Nadal: Novak Djokovic will be full of confidence after winning in Rome but I think I am getting better day by day.— Rafael Nadal Fans (@RafaelNadalFC) June 6, 2014
In truth, while Djokovic is clearly the best opponent Nadal will have faced all tournament, there is little reason to doubt that the No. 1 seed should not be the favorite. Nadal was unbeatable, playing arguably his best match since he injured his back in the Australian Open final over five months ago.
What chance does Djokovic have of upsetting Nadal?
Though it is nearly impossible to replicate this showing, it appears fallacious to doubt that past injuries will slow down Nadal on Sunday. Djokovic does have the talent to beat Nadal at full strength, perhaps the only player in the world who can make that claim on clay.
Nevertheless, based on his semifinal showing, Nadal's aura of invincibility at Roland Garros made a convincing return. As he goes for his 14th major, it appears that worries over Nadal's demise were extremely premature.