In tennis, there is a time and place for everything. In Richard Gasquet's experience, there has never been a good time or place to face Rafael Nadal.
Ripping his trademark lefty topspin forehand that seems to explode off the court, Nadal has repeatedly pushed Gasquet into the corners, neutering his wondrous one-handed backhand, forcing short balls from his forehand, and winning nine of the 11 sets they've played on hard courts. As if past history isn't ominous enough, Rafa is undefeated on hard courts this year (21-0), has not dropped serve in the tournament, and did not face a break point in shredding fellow Spaniard Tommy Robredo, 6-0, 6-2, 6-2, to reach his fifth straight Flushing Meadows semifinal.
If you're looking for Gallic hope, consider this: Gasquet has the variety to create winners from anywhere on the court and he competed tenaciously in defeating Milos Raonic in a four-hour and 40-minute fourth-rounder, in which he saved a match point. Before this tournament began, you may have had more faith in Diana Nyad's ability to go the distance than Gasquet's. He arrived in New York with a 5-12 record in five-setters but has now won two in a row, including a subduing of David Ferrer, one of the game's fittest men, in five to reach his second major semifinal. If ever there is a time for Gasquet to believe in his staying power, this is it.
But if you're looking at reality, consider this: Seeing Nadal on the other side of the net often leaves Gasquet looking as worried as a man asked to wrestle the world from Atlas' shoulders outside Rockefeller Center.
Can you blame him?
Nadal can turn tennis into torment for players with one-handed backhands. If Gasquet gets dragged into that familiar pattern—Rafa rips the heavy forehand cross-court, Richard retreats eight feet behind the baseline to reply—he has little hope of halting his slide, because Nadal's strength has beaten his strength on every occasion.
Gasquet must be willing to employ his entire toolbox worth of shots to challenge Nadal. The Frenchman is a fine volleyer, but often gives up so much ground behind the baseline that getting to the net can be a bit of a commute. Gasquet must make his first serve, maintain aggressive court-positioning, attack the net at times, hit the sharp-angled backhand cross-court to set up the down-the-line shot, and use his slice backhand to draw Nadal forward. If losing 14 straight sets to his nemesis has taught Gasquet anything, it's that he cannot win a grinding match against a man who views 30-ball rallies as an appetizer for the feast to follow.
Physicality has been a major factor in the past: Nadal is just 15 days older than Gasquet but is the bigger, stronger physical force; he outweighs his opponent by nearly 25 pounds. Gasquet may also be depleted coming off successive five-setters. The 12-time Grand Slam champion not only beats Gasquet to the ball, he beats him up with that punishing high ball that makes the Frenchman look like he's combating a medicine ball. In their last U.S. Open meeting four years ago, Nadal commanded rallies behind his serve, winning 33 of 35 points on his first serve and did not face a break point. Even if Gasquet makes the occasional chip-and-charge or takes cracks with the backhand return down the line, I can't see him denting Nadal's serve.
Gasquet can produce eye-popping moments of shotmaking brilliance; the problem is beating Rafa requires reproducing such moments over and over and over. Exhilarating never beats enduring in this match-up. No one dispenses repetition as ruthlessly as Rafa, and Richard knows that as well as anyone.
The Pick: Nadal in three sets
Master mimic Novak Djokovic has been a U.S. Open champion and entertaining presence in New York. The world No. 1 will prepare for his seventh straight U.S. Open semifinal joining his own audience.
Bending his body into positions realized only by escape artists, Djokovic extricated himself from a 6-1, 5-2 deficit to defeat Wawrinka in a five-hour and two-minute adventure at the Australian Open in January that was the fourth-longest Aussie Open match since 1968. Djokovic typically prepares for opponents by watching past matches on YouTube, but concedes that time constraints could be an issue.
"I'm not going to watch the whole match that I had with Stan because it's going to take me half a day to stay next to the computer," Djokovic joked.
The rematch could be a popcorn match, pitting two of the best backhands in the game in Djokovic's lethal two-hander and Wawrinka's versatile one-hander. Both are skilled at driving their backhands down the line, are willing to push the pace, and respect the magic they produced in Melbourne.
"I say many times that it's one of the key of the season, for sure," said Wawrinka, who has worked with coach and former French Open finalist Magnus Norman to apply his all-court skills. "That was a really tough moment, but at the end, I was really positive with that match because all Australian Open my level was quite good and was better than ever."
Turning the wide shoulder of a rugby player into his sturdy serve, Wawrinka has won nearly 80 percent of his first-serve points and dropped serve just seven times in five tournament victories. Stan neutralized one of tennis' best returners in bouncing defending champion Andy Murray out of the U.S. Open without facing a break point. Wawinka is 7-7 vs. Top 10 opponents in 2013, which is the third most Top 10 wins on the ATP behind only Rafael Nadal (15) and Djokovic (10). If Wawrinka, who has posted a career-high 41 wins this season, continues his assertive serving and applies his all-court skills—he won 31 of his 107 points against Murray at net—he has a shot at beating Djokovic for the first time in a major.
"He's a very complete player," Djokovic said of Wawrinka. "He won straight sets against defending champion on Arthur Ashe. That was quite impressive. I'm sure he's very confident and he has nothing to lose now. He's going to go for the win."
This is why Melbourne matters: Djokovic knows how dangerous Wawrinka can be and will do everything in his power to defuse the explosive Swiss from the start. I believe the game's best hard-court returner, who has broken serve a tournament-best 34 times, will vary his return position and employ his elastic reach to gain traction in Wawrinka's service games.
"If you can take the best of me, the best of Hewitt, and the best of Federer and then you stick it in one guy, that's Djokovic," Andre Agassi told me before the 2012 U.S. Open in touting Djokovic as tennis' best returner. "Because the truth is Djokovic can stay right up on the baseline and hurt you with the return if he chooses to, or he can stand back and defend if he needs to."
Look for Djokovic to hit the body serve at times on key points, because Wawrinka makes a fairly sizable grip change from his forehand to one-handed backhand and can be vulnerable to the slice serve into the hip. Wawrinka is playing his best tennis right now, but Djokovic has had the best of this rivalry on hard courts, where he's won seven of eight matches with the Swiss. Djokovic is the better defensive player, he's moving beautifully, and if conditions are as windy as they have been, he has more margin of error since he generally hits his forehand with more topspin than Wawrinka. The 2011 U.S. Open champion knows he is facing a dangerous opponent and will rise to the challenge to reach his fourth consecutive U.S. Open final.
The Pick: Djokovic in four sets