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Roland Garros men’s semifinals: a classic matchup… and Nadal-Federer

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

As you might have heard, the rain and the schedule messed up the rhythm of this week at Roland Garros. Yes, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had set their semifinal on Tuesday evening, but it took until Thursday afternoon for their other semifinalists to join them. Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem rounded out the final four in Paris. Friday’s dance card is the most glamorous day of men’s tennis we are likely to see all season.

We are confronted with a counterintuitive reality entering these blockbuster semifinals:

We arrive at a situation in which Nadal-Federer — for all of its importance to the sport of tennis, and for all of the box-office buzz it will bring to Paris, where an eager crowd will hope for a long match and a large dose of Federer magic — is the less interesting match purely as an extension of likely outcomes.

Let’s not pretend that Fedal is likely to be the closer, more dramatic semifinal. It might be more personally meaningful for the casual tennis fan watching on TV, but for the serious tennis junkie, the Djokovic-Thiem semifinal figures to be the more prolonged and tense competition.

This isn’t an insult to Federer. It is a credit to Nadal and an entirely obvious reading of history. Rafa is the ultimate argument-ender and dream-crusher on clay. He is 22-0 in Roland Garros semifinals and finals. He is supremely rested. Worries about his body from late April and early May have severely subsided. He is 5-0 against Federer at Roland Garros and has never been taken to a fifth set by Roger in those five matches.

Does Federer have a chance? Of course he does. He’s Roger Frickin’ Federer… but let’s not suggest the chance is a great one. If Federer wins the first set, game on, but even then, Rafa’s ability to adjust would still be more likely to steer the match in his direction. If Rafa wins the first set, it would become almost impossible to imagine Federer finding his way back.

None of this is harsh toward Federer. It merely reflects the enormity of the challenge of beating Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier. Dominic Thiem is 0-6 in sets against Nadal on Chatrier. Only one active tennis player has ever beaten him on Chatrier, and it’s the man Rafa might face in Sunday’s final: Djokovic.

Fedal — the simple reality that it is happening again, 14 years after the first meeting at a major, which was also at Roland Garros and also a semifinal in 2005 — is a wonderful, poignant, and highly special moment for tennis. Fedal, still going strong a decade and a half after it began, shows how blessed tennis is to have iconic champions who have displayed (and are continuing to display) such high-quality longevity.

Yet, in terms of winning and losing, Rafa is the huge favorite. It’s not an insult. It’s simply reality.

The other semifinal is the classic matchup in terms of offering the realistic possibility of a four-hour epic in which the outcome isn’t easily arrived at.

Djokovic is the favorite, but in this semifinal — unlike the other one — the underdog from an alpine nation has a more realistic chance.

Djokovic isn’t uniquely weak. That’s not why Dominic Thiem has a shot on Friday. Djokovic hasn’t lost a single set out of the 15 he has played in Paris. Djokovic is doing everything he is supposed to do, and beating Alexander Zverev in straights has positioned Novak quite well for this match.

The problem for Djokovic has nothing to do with Djokovic; it has everything to do with the fact that Dominic Thiem is a damn good clay-court tennis player.

Thiem has now made four straight French Open semifinals. That’s very rare air. Few men in the Open Era can tout that achievement. Thiem played sloppy tennis in week one in France, but so what? When he needed to polish his game, he did in week two. He improved as the tournament went along, much as he did in 2018.

Thiem doesn’t get flustered nearly as much as he used to. Observe how he lost the first set to Roger Federer in both Indian Wells and Madrid and battled back to win in three sets, saving match point in Spain.

Thiem defeated Rafael Nadal in Barcelona, a third separate city in which Thiem has beaten the King of Clay on red dirt.

Thiem played Djokovic on very even terms for most of their Madrid semifinal. Thiem beat Djokovic at Roland Garros two years ago — when Djokovic was not physically whole, but still not something one can easily do.

That last point leads us into the true mystery of Thiem-Djokovic: Does Thiem’s 2017 win in Paris mean anything?

Djokovic beat Thiem in the 2016 Roland Garros semis. That was Thiem’s introduction to a major semifinal, and it went the way “first times” often go for newbies unaccustomed to a big occasion. Look at how Zverev melted down against Djokovic in his first major quarterfinal matchup against a Big 3 opponent.

Thiem did beat Djokovic in 2017, but again, he beat Djokovic at a time when Nole was beaten up and far from his best. A few months later, Djokovic had to shut down his 2017 season before the North American hardcourt swing.

In 2018, Thiem and Djokovic were bracketed to meet in the semifinals once again, but Marco Cecchinato upset Djokovic, who was still in the process of rediscovering his game, a process which didn’t blossom until on grass.

This is such an interesting matchup because Thiem now has the experience he lacked in 2016 against Nole in Paris, and Djokovic has the combination of health and sharpness he lacked in 2017 and 2018.

This 2019 reunion at Roland Garros is, for Djokovic, merely an attempt to get to the final and earn his date with history against (most likely) Nadal. For Thiem, though, it is a prove-it moment, a chance to show that the 2017 win over Nole was no fluke or idle aberration. A win over Djokovic here, in this spot, would change the conversation from “Thiem is the best non-Rafole CLAY player on tour” to “Thiem is the best non-Rafole PLAYER, PERIOD!”

That would mean quite a lot if Thiem can achieve it.

Again: On Friday we have a classic matchup in the men’s semifinals at Roland Garros, and we also have Nadal-Federer.

It is weird to say that, but as Rafa would say, “It is the true, no?”

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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