Sometimes in tennis, the sub-plot boils over and washes away the main theme, so let's cut right to the chase. While Novak Djokovic handled Roger Federer in straight sets in the semifinals of Roland Garros, he did very little to convince skeptics that he'll be able to topple Rafael Nadal in the final, and thereby become the first man to hold all four major titles since Rod Laver last did it nearly 50 years ago.
Now that we have that out of the way, let's give Djokovic the credit he deserves for punching through to his first French Open final with a not-especially-pretty-but-workmanlike 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 win over the 16-time Grand Slam champion. The match was, at times, ugly. You could put some of that down to the fact that both Federer and Djokovic have struggled in recent matches, but the relentless wind played a major role as well—it was so heavy at times that the players had to turn away to avoid having their eyeballs sandblasted by loose granules of clay.
Both men played hot and cold tennis, although Federer's temperature plummeted deeper, more often, than did Djokovic's. Going in, it seemed that Federer's best chance to win rested on his ability to serve big and step in to take control of rallies before Djokovic did, and ending them before the Serb could make one of his customary transitions from defense to offense. And it seemed pretty clear that Federer's chances would be better if he could hide his one-handed backhand, avoiding those rallies in which Djokovic's piledriver two-handed backhand is so lethal.
The wind was partly to blame for Federer's inability to execute the first of those tasks. His own stubbornness, I presume, also played a larger role in his willingness to contest too many of those port-to-port exchanges, most of them ending badly for Federer. The No. 3 seed converted his first serve just 56 percent of the time and he made 46 unforced errors. That's no way to get the better of Djokovic, who put almost 70 percent of his first serves into play and made just 17 unforced errors to 27 winners—just six fewer than Federer produced.
This may not have been a work of art, unless you're a fan of surrealism. Because at times in what should have been a tightly played and hotly contested second set—you could argue that it's the most important set of any five-set match—it appeared that the men had decided to impersonate a couple of WTA pros at their worst. The question became not who would get the critical break, but who would record the key hold. But let's take it one set at a time.
First set: The men felt each other out and established the herky-jerky tone of the match until they got down to business at 4-all. Djokovic held the next game, then immediately pinned Federer down, 0-40—triple set point. Djokovic converted his first break point with a forehand blast that forced a forehand error.
Outstanding feature of the set: Federer's decision to engage Djokovic on the top seed's own terms. My notes say "no slice?" alongside one of the notations denoting a Federer backhand error. Federer's meek and swift capitulation was surprising.
Second set: This one got real western after kindling the hopes of Federer fans with a break of Djokovic in the first game. And when Federer went up 3-0 (with serve to come), it looked as if he might make a match of it. But Federer made four consecutive errors in the fourth game to be broken in—get this—a total time of under one minute. The lapse was so comprehensive that you couldn't just blame it on the wind, and it opened the door for Djokovic to get back into the set.
Although Federer gamely held his next service game for 4-2, he was broken again after Djokovic fended off four break points to hold the seventh game. That left the score at 4-4, but the break-fest continued. Federer broke right back and served for the set, only to be broken (it was the sixth break in 10 games) to 5-all.
By that time, Djokovic had ironed out some of the wild fluctuations in his own game, and he was more and more successful in pinning Federer into the corner with those aforesaid backhand-to-backhand rallies. By the time Federer saw the light and made more of an effort to hide the backhand, it was too late. Following an easy hold, Djokovic won the set with yet another break of Federer.
Set three: This one was like the calm after the storm, even if the wind continued to undermine the quality of tennis. Tired of breaking each other, perhaps, there were no fireworks until the sixth game, when a double-fault and an unforced backhand error once again found Federer down, 0-40.
Federer eliminated both break points, one with a forehand winner and the other via a Djokovic error. But from deuce, Federer missed with a backhand off Djokovic's so-so service return, and after a brief rally, he then missed with an inside-out forehand. It was a virtual match point, and Federer never recovered from the 2-4 deficit. It was also one of the many games in which, just when it looked as Federer might pull it together, he shrank back and failed to close the deal.
Somehow, getting Rafael Nadal in the final doesn't seem like much of a reward for this win. It will be interesting to see if Djokovic can find the consistent excellence it will take to bring down the champ.