Rarely in recent Grand Slam history has a semifinal had such hallmarks of a final itself. Rafael Nadal may have attempted to play down the significance of the clash, but Novak Djokovic has broken his vow of silence to express what almost everyone will be thinking when watching the two men take to the Philippe Chatrier Court on Friday: that the French Open trophy will be on the line.
"This is it," Djokovic said. "This is the biggest matchup of our Roland Garros 2013 campaign for both me and him."
That sense of anticipation and occasion has largely been present since the draw was made two weeks ago in Paris and ensured that the two favorites would meet in the last four. And it is even more the case now following Roger Federer’s quarterfinal exit. Even David Ferrer’s or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s biggest fans would struggle to believe that it is the other semifinal that will produce this year’s champion on the terre batue.
Yet, there is so much more on the line than just the probability of lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires. It is the continuation of a rivalry between the current two best players in the world and two of the greatest players of this or any generation. It is also the latest chance for Djokovic to try and dethrone Nadal as the King of Clay and become only the second player ever to beat the Spaniard at Roland Garros.
Djokovic appeared to have as good a chance of anyone of doing so in last year’s final but Nadal again prevailed in a rain-affected four set encounter. That took Nadal’s haul of trophies at the French Open to seven and saw him pass the man previously considered the greatest on the grueling dirt in Paris -- Bjorn Borg.
At the start of 2013 many thought that this could be the year when Nadal was finally dethroned on his favorite surface. His problematic knees forced him to miss seven months of the tour before returning to action in February. Instead, Nadal has surprised even himself with what he has achieved since his comeback as he has incredibly reached the final of all eight of the events he has played before arriving in Paris and won six of them.
Having said that, Djokovic is the only man to beat him since his first tournament back. And what’s more it came on the clay in Monte Carlo in what was their most recent of 34 previous meetings. Further encouragement for Djokovic should come from Nadal looking unusually vulnerable in the first week at Roland Garros and losing the first sets in his opening two matches to unheralded opponents. The rewards for Djokovic if he can pull of the win are huge. Winning the French Open would not only keep him on course for a single year Grand Slam, having won the Australian Open, but it would also make him only the eighth man ever to win the career Grand Slam.
“Now I have a big challenge in front of me, and I'm ready for it," Djokovic said. "I have been playing well. I know that this is the biggest challenge for me in Roland Garros, no question about it, and I'm sure that it's going to be quite a good match.”
There is no little motivation for Nadal either. He will be fully aware that there were people ready to write him off following his latest worrisome injury and continuing his dominance at Roland Garros would put the exclamation point on an astonishing comeback. Despite everything he has achieved, the man who just turned 27 admitted that he will feel the nerves on Friday.
“I’m [going to] be be nervous for the semi-finals probably, yes,” he said. “If not, I better go home and do another thing,” said Nadal. “If you are not nervous to play the semi-finals against the best player of the world, it's because you are not enjoying or you don't feel the passion for this game. Sure I will be a little bit nervous, but I will be more motivated than nervous.”
Prediction: Djokovic has his best shot yet to get the better of Nadal at Roland Garros, but the Spaniard will perhaps have even greater determination to come out on top this time around. Djokovic should go one better than last year, but may still come up short in five grueling sets.
Betting Odds: Rafael Nadal is 8/13 favorite to reach the final, with Bet 365. Djokovic is priced at 13/10 to get the win.
Where to watch: The first French Open semifinal will get underway at 7 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by the Tennis Channel. A live stream, which you view at your own discretion, can be viewed here.