Rafael Nadal is going for No. 9 at the French Open, and the only man that can stop him is Novak Djokovic. Nadal is already a record eight-time champion with a lifetime 65-1 record at the Roland Garros. One more victory on the red clay will make him the first man to win five in a row and give him his 14th Grand Slam title — tied in second place with Pete Sampras.
The top-seeded Spaniard reached the final by beating Wimbledon champion Andy Murray 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 Friday on Court Philippe Chatrier, the stadium Nadal calls his favourite place to play. Djokovic defeated Ernests Gulbis 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in the first semifinal. Nadal has beaten Djokovic at the French Open in all five meetings, starting with a quarterfinal victory in 2006. They also met in the semifinals in 2007, ‘08 and ‘13, and in the final in 2012.
The second-seeded Djokovic, however, has beaten Nadal the last four times they have played, including on clay in the final in Rome last month. “I’m going to try to be aggressive, because that is the only way I can win against him,” Djokovic said. “I know that, of course, this is the court he’s most dominant on. He has only lost one time in his career. This is where he plays his best.”
The winner on Sunday will also be ranked No. 1 on Monday. Nadal is currently at the top, but needs to extend his French Open winning streak to 35 matches to stay there.
Played like a champion
He certainly played like the No. 1 on Friday. Nadal jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first set, then broke early again in the second and third sets. The Spaniard had six break points in the entire match, and converted each one.
Murray, meanwhile, couldn’t even manage to earn a single break point. Besides his eight titles at the French Open, Nadal has also won twice at the Wimbledon, twice at the U.S. Open and once at the Australian Open. Sampras won 14 major titles in his career, but never the French Open. The record holder is Roger Federer with 17 Grand Slam titles. He won his 14th in Paris in 2009, the only French Open in which Nadal lost a match.
On the first sunny day of this year’s tournament, the semifinals started with Djokovic and Gulbis on Chatrier. Djokovic was able to control the pace of the match while letting Gulbis’ unforced errors mount. The powerful Latvian, who was playing in his first Grand Slam semifinal, finished with 44 errors.
Djokovic, a six-time major champion who needs to win the title at the French Open to complete a career Grand Slam, was first to get into trouble in the first semifinal. But he managed to save two break points and hold to 2-2 in the opening set.
A few minutes later, he was ahead for good. Djokovic needed three attempts to earn his first break of the match, and he finally got it when Gulbis sent one of his many forehands long.
It was also in that game that Gulbis had his first of five double-faults. His second double came in the final game of the set, when Djokovic broke again. And his third came when trailing Djokovic 4-3 in the second, when the Serb broke yet again.
Gulbis fared better in the third set. He again had two break points while leading 3-2, but again failed to win the game. However, he didn’t waste his chance two games later, breaking Djokovic to take a 5-3 lead before serving out the set with his 11th ace. The two traded breaks early in the fourth set, and Djokovic broke again to lead 5-3 when Gulbis, again double-faulting once in the game, sent a backhand long. Djokovic won the last game at love.
“It was a struggle out there,” Gulbis said. “I felt maybe throughout the match I hit five really clean shots, from either side, backhand or forehand. Even serve.”
After nearly two weeks of overcast skies and cool temperatures, the sun was shining on center court and Djokovic and Gulbis were more interested in staying cool than staying warm.
Both players used ice wrapped in towels around their necks, like players often do at the sweltering Australian Open, as the temperature reached 28 degrees C Friday.
Sharapova, Halep square up
One has nothing to lose, the other is expected to win on Saturday. Even though Romania’s Simona Halep is the higher seed, at four, Maria Sharapova is the household name, the face on the billboards and is playing in her third successive French Open final.
Halep has not dropped a set on the way to challenging for the Suzanne Lenglen Cup, and the $2.25 million cheque, having never gone further than the quarter-finals of a grand slam before. “I have nothing to lose. I will keep this in my mind always. I will try to hit very relaxed,” the 22-year-old said after beating Germany’s Andrea Petkovic in the semis.
“I know that it will be very tough to manage the emotions, but I will try my best at that moment.”
Sharapova has four grand slam titles, including the 2012 French crown, and has been number one in the world, yet she missed the second half of last season with a shoulder injury and has been pushed to three sets in each of her last three matches in Paris.