Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

French Open: Nadal stands in way as Djokovic looks to make history

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 08: Rafael Nadal of Spain plays a forehand in his men's singles semi final match against David Ferrer of Spain during day 13 of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 8, 2012 in Paris, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

At this rate they might just as well cancel the other 126 men's singles matches in future and go straight to the final.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the world's two best players, will become the first men to contest four successive Grand Slam finals when they meet here tomorrow in the climax to the French Open.



The gap between the two men and their nearest rivals was emphasised by the ease of their semi-final victories yesterday. Djokovic beat Roger Federer 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 to avenge the defeat by the Swiss that ended his 43-match winning run at the same stage of this tournament last year, while Nadal needed just an hour and 46 minutes to trounce David Ferrer 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. Federer and Ferrer were the first pair of thirty-something men to make the semi-finals at a Grand Slam tournament for nine years, but had no answer to the excellence of the 25-year-old Serb and the 26-year-old Spaniard.



If there was local disappointment at Federer not reaching his sixth final here – the Parisians love the French-speaking former world No 1 for all his style and elegance – it will be the dream finale for the sport at large. While Nadal, who shares the record of six French Open titles with Bjorn Borg, will be hoping to make the record his own, Djokovic needs victory to become the first man for 43 years – and only the third ever after Don Budge and Rod Laver – to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time. It will be his first appearance in the final here.



The meeting of Djokovic and Federer had been eagerly awaited but was an anti-climax. It matched the weather on another damp and cold day which featured two rain delays. There were occasional sunny interludes when both men played at their best, but most of the exchanges were too one-sided to brighten a grey afternoon.



Federer, who has not won a Grand Slam title for two and a half years, showed brief flashes of his old self, but made 46 unforced errors to Djokovic's 17 as the Serb kept him under relentless pressure. Djokovic, who has become the best returner in the game, broke serve seven times.



The only times when Federer looked threatening were at the start of the first and second sets. In the first he broke to lead 3-2, only for Djokovic to break back immediately, and in the second he broke twice to lead 3-0. The Swiss won one superb 36-shot rally with a sublime drop shot-lob-volley combination, but Djokovic went on to break four times to take the set. There was an inevitability about the third set, which Djokovic won with a single break in the sixth game.



While Federer had arrived on Court Philippe Chatrier to cheers and applause, there had been a muted greeting for Djokovic and even some booing, for reasons best known to the idiosyncratic French crowd, who are never slow to give expression to their bias. Federer's winners were often greeted with loud acclaim, while Djokovic's sometimes met with near silence. At least the world No 1 raised a cheer when he conducted his post-match interview on the court in broken French.



"Today was the best match of 2012 Roland Garros for me, so I've raised my game when I needed to," Djokovic said. "I played really well when it was most important to do so."



Federer, who was not helped by the slow conditions, said he had struggled to keep the ball in play. "I thought he played well under tough conditions," the Swiss said. "I wasn't able to sustain a solid enough game today."



The first semi-final had featured Spain's two best clay-court players, but the contest was about as even as a bullfight. Nadal was at his magnificent best, while Ferrer, who had been too good for Andy Murray in the quarter-finals, looked a beaten man from the moment he was broken in the fifth game after a tightly contested opening.



We have become so accustomed to Nadal dominating here that it is easy to take the world No 2's extraordinary supremacy for granted. He has won 51 of his 52 matches at Roland Garros and this is the fourth time in the last six years that he has reached the final without dropping a set. In his six matches so far he has lost just 35 games – six fewer than his previous best year in 2008.



Having made Nadal save two break points in his second service game, Ferrer did not force another in the whole match. Nadal was soon in such command that he was even winning points while sitting down. In one rally early in the second set the world No 2 fell on his backside, yet still played a beautifully judged drop shot and went on to win the point.



With Nadal leading 4-1 in the second set, rain forced the players off the court. The match resumed 55 minutes later, but the pattern remained unchanged as Nadal served out to take the second set. The end was mercifully swift, Nadal smacking an inside out forehand winner to break serve for the seventh time.



Nadal said it had been one of his best performances ever on these courts. "I've been playing well since the beginning of the season," he said. "I am having an almost perfect clay-court season, and we'll see what will happen in the final. It's going to be a very tough match. I am very happy, but sorry for David. He's a great fighter. He's always there week after week.



Ferrer said: "I tried to do my best, but when the opponent was better than me, I can't do anything. He played very good all the time, I didn't have any chance."



Djokovic regards Nadal as the favourite, but the Spaniard will be aware that he would create an unwelcome piece of history if he were to lose in the final for a record fourth Grand Slam tournament in succession. At least he has managed to break Djokovic's hold on him during the current-clay court season by beating him in Monte Carlo and Rome, having earlier lost to the Serb in seven successive finals.



However, Djokovic's confidence is understandably sky-high. "I believe I'm at the peak of my career," he said. "I've been playing the best tennis of my life in the last year and a half, and I should use that to boost my confidence and try to get my hands on title. Why not?"



Stats magic



49 Career titles won by Rafa Nadal ahead of tomorrow's final



5 Tomorrow will be the fifth consecutive Slam final contested by Nadal



4 Nadal and Djokovic will contest their fourth straight Grand Slam final



43 Djokovic is trying to become the first man in 43 years to hold all four Slam titles at the same time.



28 Twenty eight of the last 29 Slams have gone to Nadal, Djokovic or Federer

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