Novak Djokovic (1) versus Roger Federer (3)
The dominance currently exerted by the top three players in men’s tennis can have the unfortunate side effect of making any given tournament’s draw look lop sided. At Roland Garros, the world number three Roger Federer will take on Novak Djokovic in the semi-final after falling on the Serb’s side of the draw again.
Federer fans may be rueing his decision to skip the Monte Carlo Masters, as even a relatively meagre return of points at that tournament would have seen their man seeded at number two ahead of Rafa Nadal. While world no.6 Ferrer is a worthy opponent for Nadal in the other semi final, both Djokovic and Federer perhaps feel a twinge envy at the Spaniard.
Last year’s meeting at the same stage was considered by many to be the finest match of the year. From the start of 2011 Djokovic had built up incredible momentum with a 43-match winning streak and, importantly, had established hegemony on clay by defeating Nadal in the Madrid and Rome finals. Federer met the challenge posed by the younger man head-on with one of the most aggressive performances of his career, winning tie breakers in the first and fourth sets to defeat Djokovic as the light faded.
Highlights of the 2011 encounter can be viewed here:
Djokovic took revenge later in the year at the US Open, saving match points in the fifth set before going on to win an incredibly dramatic match.
Highlights of the final two sets of the Flushing Meadows match can be viewed here:
Following on from those classic encounters, expectations for this instalment could not be higher.
So what is at stake for the players?
For Djokovic, the answer is simple: a shot at tennis immortality. Victory at this tournament would see the Serb hold all four Grand Slam titles concurrently, a feat last achieved by Rod Laver in 1969. The achievement would be all the more impressive today, as in Laver’s era the major tournaments were held one of only two surfaces (grass and clay), whereas today the US and Australia Opens are held on hard courts. Also the depth of competition on the ATP Tour has increased hugely over the years and Djokovic would be achieving the feat while competing with outright two legends of the game in Federer and Nadal.
While Federer’s face had been carved onto the Mount Rushmore of tennis for some time already, a win here would give him a shot at adding a second French Open to his CV and his first major in over two years. Also it offers the tantalising chance of defeating Nadal in a Roland Garros final. After losing four times previously, this is probably the one result that Federer most craves in terms of his legacy. Given Nadal’s record on clay, such an outcome is unlikely, but progressing to the final would still be a significant step towards regaining the number one ranking. One week short of Pete Sampras’ record of 286 weeks at number one, Federer has put together a run of form that has him in contention for the top spot once more, but he will need to outperform his two rivals this summer to achieve it.
Both men are coming into the match after gruelling five setters in the quarter finals. Djokovic miraculously saved four match points against the Frenchman Tsonga, while Federer recovered from two sets down to wear his Argentine opponent Del Potro out.
Looking over the head-to-head gives mixed messages. Federer leads overall 14-11 and has the advantage 3-2 on clay. Djokovic won their last meeting on clay in the Rome semis and has won 5 of the past six matches.
In Rome, Djokovic’s heavy ground strokes off both wings knocked Federer backwards for a reasonably comfortable win. How much can be read into that is debatable given Federer’s extended run at Madrid, but generally the match-up has moved in Djokovic’s favour over the past couple of years.
One thing is certain – it will be a hell of a show.
Watch out for… the end of match handshake. Last year, Djokovic took his defeat graciously with a hug and smile for the winner. Will he be able to repeat such a heartening act of sportsmanship? How will Federer react if the Serb triumphs this time?