By Jane Voigt
Ernests Gulbis is the outlier. The other three are the dominators. The seventy-five percent of the Big Four: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. These are your 2014 men’s singles semifinalists.
Most expect Rafael Nadal (No. 1) and Novak Djokovic (No. 2) to win their semifinal, beginning first with Djokovic and Gulbis, followed by Nadal and Murray. Nadal would like a 9th Coupe des Mousquetaires and Djokovic has dreamed long enough for his career Grand Slam — Roland Garros being the missing link. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Like all tennis matches at this stage of a major nerves come in to play. No matter how many times Rafa has stepped on Court Philippe Chatrier, you can bet your life he will have to work off his nerves before, as he calls it, his ‘calm’ envelopes his body and mind. Same goes for the other semifinalists.
First semifinal: Novak Djokovic and Ernests Gulbis
This is more a story about Djokovic (left, photo credit tennisclix.com) than about Gulbis. The first and only Latvian to play a Grand Slam, Gulbis has proven his worth over the two weeks. He has been steady, has a huge first and second serve, returns almost as well as his opponent, and should be foot loose. The French love him, especially with his record leading up to the tournament. He has not lost in France this spring.
This cannot be said about Djokovic. French fans have never warmed to him. If Gulbis starts to run away with the match, which would be unlikely, crowds will cheer him on almost with the vigor shown Frenchman Gael Monfils in his quarterfinal loss.
Djokovic hired Boris Becker for his mental sharpness, his ability to concentrate point to point and not lose himself in the emotional ups and downs that come along with high-end matches, like tomorrow’s semifinal. This is really the only part of Djokovic’s game that needed a boost. In last year’s semifinal against Nadal, the Serbian was all a tither about this and that. The back court was wet, he couldn’t slide. Then he touched the net on an overhead, said he didn’t know you couldn’t touch the net, got into a disagreement with the chair umpire and couldn’t shake it.
Even so, Djokovic is more disciplined than Gulbis. Novak might think he has worked harder than Gulbis (right), and he’s right, and therefore he might think he deserves the win. If he entertains that notion, which he has been trained not to entertain, he will do himself an injustice. After defeating Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals, he told the press, “I like my chances.” And, his chances are very good.
But here’s the caveat.
The weather over this fortnight has been dismally chilly, rainy, and downright cold at times. People have been photographed in puffy jackets, ski caps, and scarves. Today conditions changed. Temperatures were cool — in the low 60s — but the sun came out. Friday’s forecast calls for the low 80s and cloudy skies.
That means the clay will dry, balls will bounce higher and fly faster over the net. This is a thrilling part of Roland Garros. Players must adapt. Gulbis was a better fast-court player than Djokovic, at least in years past. Gulbis’s only win in five matches came in Brisbane on a hard court. And their quarterfinal in 2008 at Roland Garros was a Djokovic triumph, on a sunny day.
Winner – Novak Djokovic in five sets.
Second semifinal — Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray
The fact that Murray has made the semifinal is a stunning achievement; he should be proud. Last fall he parted ways with Coach Ivan Lendl, who watched him win a U. S. Open and Wimbledon. Andy had back surgery, and spent months in rehabilitation. He only returned to the tour at the end of December. He continues to play without a coach, but his bevy of close friends and trainers are at his side.
Murray has had to play two five-set matches: one in the third round against Philipp Kohlschreiber (No. 28) that spanned two days and ended 12-10 in the fifth; and, one in the quarterfinal against Gael Monfils (No. 23). More time on court coupled with semifinal jitters could undermine Andy, but he should be able to shake them off if he plays aggressively. That’s how he got past Kohlschreiber and Monfils — he dominated.
Nadal (left, photo credit tennisclix.com) and Murray have met 7 times late in a major — 2 quarterfinals and 5 semifinals. Murray triumphed twice: 2010 Australian Open quarterfinal when Nadal retired down 0-3 in the third set; and, 2008 at the U. S. Open when Murray won in four sets. They have never met on the red clay of Paris, though, at this critical juncture. And outside of slams, Murray has never defeated Nadal on red clay. Not many players have, though.
Nadal’s spin will challenge Murray in a bigger-bouncing way with the drier court conditions. Hitting at shoulder height can wear out the fittest player, which Murray is. To compensate, he will have to serve well and go for winners. If Nadal’s shots land short — come in.
Winner — Rafael Nadal in four sets.