As the 2014 French Open winds down, the results of the men's semifinals gave the tennis world the matchup everyone wanted to see.
The greatest clay-court player in the sport's history appeared vulnerable headed into the tournament, but Rafael Nadal showed against Andy Murray why he is still the top-ranked player in the world. Likewise, despite some adversity, Novak Djokovic fended off Ernests Gulbis to reach the final.
Check out the full scores and analysis from the semifinal matches, as well as an early preview of the men's final.
|(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|
Djokovic Powers Through
After two easy sets, it appeared Djokovic would cruise his way into the final. Gulbis' balance was clearly off early in the match, as he sprayed forehands all over the court and ended the second set in fitting fashion with a double fault.
However, despite these early frustrations, the 25-year-old Latvian was superb in the third set, hitting numerous backhand winners as he simply outclassed Djokovic for a brief period. The Serbian star showed his frustration in breaking his racket at the beginning of the fourth set and appeared sick after the match, per Douglas Robson of USA Today:
Djokovic took more than 2 hours to come to press and referred to some physical issues he did not want to discuss, but sounded a little sick.— Douglas Robson (@dougrobson) June 6, 2014
But Djokovic's superior serve coupled with Gulbis' error-prone tendencies ultimately swung the match in favor of the higher seed. Djokovic was timely on the return, winning five of his 10 break-point opportunities. Conversely, Gulbis struggled with his serve, getting just 57 percent of his first serves in, and won only two of seven break points.
Matt Zemek of Bloguin talked about Djokovic's play after the match:
Looking ahead to the final, Djokovic and his fans should be concerned about only 1 non-Nadal-related factor: the weather (hot temperatures).— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) June 6, 2014
Djokovic will now have an opportunity to win his first French Open in his second finals appearance. Doing so would make him the eighth player to win the career Grand Slam and place him in the same pantheon as rivals Nadal and Roger Federer.
Sometimes, legends remind us why they are considered the best in their respective fields. Rafael Nadal's semifinal throttling of Andy Murray was such an instance, as the No. 1 seed reinforced his status as the best clay-court player in the world, even in spite of recent injuries.
In many ways, this match felt like a message to Djokovic. Nadal hit 24 winners to just 15 unforced errors, and was a perfect 6-of-6 in break-point opportunities. He only conceded 11 points on his service all match, winning an astounding 91 percent of his first-serve points.
Since his back injury at the Australian Open, there have been very few instances of vintage Nadal. But even the humble Nadal conceded that the semifinal represented one of his best matches of the year:
It's hard to imagine him replicating that form in the final, mostly because it may be physically impossible to play better. However, whatever lingering doubts existed about Nadal's health were extinguished with this match. Instead, Nadal's aura of invincibility at the French Open returned just at the right moment.
How will the French Open final play out?
Needless to say, a Nadal-Djokovic match holds significant historical implications. Djokovic needs at least one French title to begin to compare his career to Nadal or Federer, while Nadal can win his 14th major and move into a tie with Pete Sampras for second-most grand slams of all time.
Djokovic has held the edge in recent seasons, winning the past four meetings. That includes a clay-court victory in their most recent meeting, the Rome final that took place in the tune-up to Roland Garros. In fact, Djokovic has won two of their past three clay-court meetings, as he also defeated Nadal at the 2013 Monte Carlo Masters.
Zemek talked about how dominant the pair have been of late:
What was once the Big Four is, at the moment, the Big Two. Are there slight blips and deviations? Sure. Over the long run of time, tho....— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) June 6, 2014
Of course, Nadal has been hampered by injuries throughout that stretch, but he has appeared fit throughout this fortnight. The French Open remains his kingdom, and with eight titles in the past nine years, it is fallacious to doubt the Spaniard's ability to win.
But this is clearly the tightest matchup in recent years, as a Nadal victory is far from a foregone conclusion. Thus, it appears tennis fans are in for one of the most exciting grand slam finals in recent memory.