First Ball In, 6/6: Final-Round Forecasts

Friday, June 06, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

It was a day of bright sun and much confusion at Roland Garros, as two highly anticipated men’s semifinals turned into duds. Here’s a quick look back at them, and a somewhat longer look at what's still ahead this weekend in Paris.

*****

Friday Review

“Strange,” is how Ernests Gulbis felt.

“A really bad day,” is the way Andy Murray put it.

“Tired,” is how Novak Djokovic described himself, even though he won in four sets. He was tired enough that it took him two hours to get to his post-match press conference.

There are explanations. After a rainy and cool two weeks, it was suddenly sunny and hot in Paris. Gulbis was playing his first Grand Slam semifinal. Murray had played two five-setters in the last week. Djokovic has struggled with heat in the past. And they were all nervous. But whatever the reasons, the upshot was a disappointing semifinal Friday—we knew Rafa and Novak were going to make the final, but they could have humored us with a little suspense, right?

A note on the losers of each match:

Gulbis’s strong run came to a weak end. I had written before the match that he would play without fear, but that didn’t seem to be true. The only time he competed well was when he was down two sets to love. As soon as Djokovic grew tired and unhappy, and a fifth set seemed plausible, Gulbis vanished again. From 3-3 in the fourth set on, he barely hit a ball in the court.

Murray’s loss was no surprise, but the progressively-more-dismal 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 scoreline was. This was just the second of their last seven matches to be decided in straight sets; the other was also in the French Open semifinals, in 2011, but that was competitive the whole way. Today, when Murray hit a forehand into the net on the second point of the match, he slumped his shoulders, and I immediately said, as a joke, “It’s over.” It really was over, and Murray looked like he knew it. Worse, the defending Wimbledon champ says he’s concerned about his game going forward.

*****

OOP Analysis

See Saturday’s Order of Play here.

Maria Sharapova vs. Simona Halep

It's maximum effort vs. maximum effortlessness. Sharapova, who has come back from a set down in each of her last three matches, has been a better fighter than she has been a player so far in Paris. Halep, who has yet to drop a set, has made it all look easy. Both of those things were also true the last time they played, in the Madrid final in May. Halep cruised through a 6-1 opener, but Sharapova steeled herself for a three-set win. 

Maria is 3-0 in their head to head, owns a career Grand Slam, is playing her third straight French Open final, and almost always makes the most of her opportunities on clay when Serena Williams is knocked out. More daunting, she has won 19 straight three-setters on dirt. Halep, meanwhile, is playing in her first major final. But the Romanian has one thing going for her: She’s playing better than Sharapova at the moment. Winner: Halep

Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic

This is a something’s-gotta-give moment: Nadal is 5-0 against Djokovic at Roland Garros, while Djokovic has won their last four matches. The No. 1 ranking is on the line, as is Djokovic’s quest for a career Grand Slam and Nadal’s quest to move up the major-winner leaderboard—a title here ties him with Pete Sampras at 14, second among men all-time.

Yet none of this is new. The Rafole showdowns at Roland Garros the last two years have been similarly epochal, and Djokovic has been aiming for years to prove he was right in 2006, when he scratched “Vamos Nole” on his sneakers before his first meeting with Nadal at the French, and defied the press afterward by calling Rafa “beatable."

Djokovic has yet to make good on that word at Roland Garros, but he’s done it everywhere else. He has beaten Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo, Madrid, and twice in Rome. And he has beaten him in the finals of each of the other Grand Slams. Paris remains Nadal’s last redoubt.

Is this, finally, the right time for Djokovic to take it? Coming into the tournament, I said yes, but Nadal, as he has a tendency to do, has made his odds look better over the two weeks in Paris. I compared his quarterfinal win over David Ferrer to his galvanizing, momentum-building quarterfinal win over Robin Soderling at Wimbledon in 2010. At that event, he went on to straight-set Murray and Tomas Berdych for the title.

Nadal repeated the first of those wins over Murray today, and said afterward that he’s playing his best tennis of the season right now. I also think Rafa will feel less pressure than Djokovic in the final—win or lose, he’ll likely surrender the No. 1 ranking eventually, and he’s more than proven himself at Roland Garros.

Djokovic, meanwhile, said he became unaccountably exhausted in the third set of his semi on Friday—that’s no way to go into a final with Rafa on clay. Did Nole feel the heat, or is he already feeling the pressure of trying to achieve a lifetime goal? One thing that might work in his favor: The forecast calls for heavier conditions on Sunday.

A second thing in his favor: No matter what their form appears to be coming into their showdowns, Djokovic tends to leave it behind and play better when he faces Nadal. Three weeks ago in Rome, Rafa blitzed Grigor Dimitrov in one semifinal, while a testy Nole barely survived Milos Raonic in the other. Yet the next day it was Djokovic who beat Nadal in the final, and played some of the best tennis of his career to do it.

Thinking about it some more, Nadal’s quarterfinal win over Ferrer also reminded me of his quarterfinal win over Tomas Berdych at the 2012 Australian Open. There, as here, Rafa started slowly before finishing at the top of his game. In his next match in Melbourne, he played his best tennis of the tournament to beat Roger Federer. Then he faced Djokovic in the final. We all know what happened in that match. Get ready for a good one. Winner: Djokovic

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