Former junior rivals came face to face at net as Ernests Gulbis wrapped his arm around Novak Djokovic for the pre-match photo. For two sets, that was about as close as Gulbis could get to Djokovic in the bigger picture.
The second-seeded Serbian was a few shots from turning this semifinal into a straight-sets selfie. Then Djokovic got tired, tight, and cranky. Gulbis began cracking his backhand with bold authority in barging right back into the picture by snatching the third set and rallying to level the fourth.
Ultimately, Djokovic refocused right at the finish, winning eight straight points to seal a 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 victory that was more complicated than the scoreline suggests. Djokovic was sharper on the big points and broke the big server five times in advancing to his 13th career Grand Slam final, and his second in Paris.
The 18th-seeded Gulbis saved two break points in the fifth game, but his forehand failed him as Djokovic broke for 3-2. Gulbis erased two set points serving at 3-5, but netted a routine backhand to face a third. The most electric point of the set followed as Gulbis carved a sharp-angled cross-court backhand—only to see that difficult shot exceeded when Djokovic slid into a backhand he curled around the net post. Without even playing his best tennis, Djokovic was up a set.
Fine-tuning his game, Djokovic reeled off six straight points, holding at love for 4-3 in the second. Gulbis scattered a second serve deep to hand Djokovic a break point. Given that Djokovic had held at love in two of his prior three service games, it felt like a set point. It pretty much was. Soon after Gulbis' backhand sailed long, Djokovic converted his third (real) set point, seizing a two-set lead after just 74 minutes of play.
The sixth game of the third set was a physical test that spanned 10 minutes, featured five deuces, and saw Djokovic deliver four aces, saving a pair of break points to hold for 3-all. Gulbis, who began clutching his lower back during that game, did not call for a trainer. But the Latvian began booming his backhand, broke at 15 for a 5-3 lead, and slammed an ace to take the third set in 46 minutes. Surprisingly, Djokovic, who was squinting into the sun, didn't go to the baseball cap until the next set. Even more surprising the fact he did not find the Gulbis forehand on crucial rallies down the stretch.
Grabbing at his lower back more frequently, Gulbis grimaced when he splattered a forehand into net to drop serve and trail 2-0 in the fourth set. The finish line was looming, but Djokovic stumbled, gifting the break back at 15 and overreacting by slamming his racquet to the court, contorting the head and exposing frustrations.
That outburst seemed to soothe Djokovic, who was untroubled on serve the rest of the match. Serving at 3-4, Gulbis was up 30-0 then completely lost the plot, crumbling in the face of Djokovic's depth and dropping serve with a pair of backhand errors. Djokovic finished with a flourish, attacking behind a forehand to draw a feeble reply. The 2012 finalist finished with 30 winners against 25 unforced errors.
Continuing his quest to become the eighth man to complete the career Grand Slam, Djokovic is understandably feeling the nerves with both a place in history and return to the world No. 1 ranking in reach. While he wasn't satisfied with his sloppy service game late in the third set, Djokovic is right where he wants to be. He knows he'll need to be even better to win his first Grand Slam title in 17 months.
Asked how he felt in the aftermath, a candid Djokovic told Eurosport's Barbara Schett: "Not great, to be honest. After two and a half sets I started feeling a little fatigue. I'm just glad to finish in four sets. Different conditions today affected the match, but in the end a win is a win...I cannot allow myself to have situations happen like what happened at the end of the third set. I'll try to work on that and be physically, mentally and emotionally ready for the next match."