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The best players will be showcased in Friday’s men’s semi-finals at Roland Garros, an order of play that stands in stark contrast to what transpired in the topsy-turvy women’s event.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, No. 3 Rafael Nadal, No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, and No. 6 Alexander Zverev have reached the final four.
Missing are No. 2 Daniil Medvedev and No. 4 Dominic Thiem, but Medvedev had little form (and a pronounced disaffection for clay) at the start, and Tsitsipas has been in a funk for several months so it wasn’t a total shock when he exited in the first round to Pablo Andujar.
Friday’s line-up is Tsitsipas vs. Zverev in the first semi-final in Court Philippe Chatrier followed by living legends Djokovic vs. Nadal.
There will be a shared total of 38 Grand Slam titles (and 56 finals overall) when Djokovic, 34, and Nadal, 35, step on the court. As for Tsitsipas, 22, and Zverev, 24, they have just one Grand Slam final between them: Zverev’s loss to Thiem in the 2020 US Open.
In Paris, already immortalized with a statue on-site, Nadal stands above the rest as he attempts to win an almost unfathomable 14th title.
- INSIGHTS gives Nadal the highest odds of winning the crown with 37% followed by Tsitsipas with 28%. Djokovic has the third-highest chance and Zverev has the lowest.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs No. 3 Rafael Nadal
As Roger Federer slowly drifts from center stage, Djokovic and Nadal are the standard-bearers as they meet for the 58th time dating back 15 years to the 2006 Roland Garros quarter-finals. Djokovic leads their head-to-head 29-28 but Nadal has dominated on clay 19-7 including 7-1 at Roland Garros.
Last October, Nadal steamrolled Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in the Roland Garros final, a match where the Serbian seemed oddly in disarray – attempting an unusual three drop shots in the very first game of the match.
Looking ahead to Friday, Djokovic said, “I’m hopefully going to be able to also perform at the higher level than I have, especially in the first two sets in the last year’s final.”
On Wednesday, he won the first two sets against Matteo Berrettini by exactly the same score as last year’s 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 semi-final over Tsitsipas. He had a chance to wrap up the match in three sets when he led 5-4 in the third-set tiebreak with two serves to come. But he seemed to get nervous, possibly due to a sense of urgency to avoid playing two more sets, and made two costly errors. First he dumped a routine forehand into the net and then did the same with a backhand on his way to losing three points in a row and the set. He managed to win the fourth set for a 6-3, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5 win in three hours and 26 minutes, wrapping up just before midnight.
There has been a lot of talk about Djokovic’s wildly demonstrative celebration after he won. He said he felt “under tension the entire time”. That pressure may have come from trying to finish as quickly as possible, every moment longer he stayed on court with Berrettini was time he would lose to rest and recover for his semi-final against Nadal.
The fact that Nadal played the early quarter-final, and in the daytime in the same conditions as will be for Friday’s semi-final, could be an advantage for the 13-time champion. Djokovic doesn’t seem bothered. “I’m not the one to ask about the schedule, honestly,” he said. “I’m not sure what should I say about that.”
Finishing so late and with his recuperation and media responsibilities, Djokovic likely could not get to bed until 2 or 3 a.m., long after Nadal, who finished his duties much earlier in the evening.
Whether Wednesday’s late finish affects Djokovic in the semi-finals remains to be seen, but he can take consolation from his experience at the ATP 1000 in Rome last month. Then, because of weather delays, he had to play for nearly five hours to beat Tsitsipas and Lorenzo Sonego in one day. He was still able to find the energy to threaten Nadal, who played for just an hour and 32 minutes to get past Reilly Opelka on Saturday, losing 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 in the Sunday final.
Regardless of the situation, Djokovic knows he can play Nadal tough at Roland Garros. His lone win came in the 2015 quarter-finals when Nadal was struggling through a rough year when he didn’t win a title on clay until Hamburg in July. In 2012 and 2014, Djokovic pushed Nadal twice to four sets at Roland Garros. In 2013, he lost 9-7 in the fifth set after he was in a favorable position late in that final set but touched the net while making a simple put-away shot.
The one constant that remains is that the man Djokovic is facing on Friday as he tries desperately for a second Roland Garros title is the king of clay and has exceptional reserves of mental and physical energy.
Nadal shared his thoughts on his mindset before he ran off the final nine games for a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 victory over Diego Schwartzman on Wednesday. “I have been in a tricky situation, 4-3 for him in the third set, one set all,” Nadal said. “Then was the moment to calm myself, to think about the things that I was doing well in practices, just to try to make it happen. That was the moment to make it happen.”
Just listening to those words would be intimidating for any opponent. At least Djokovic knows all too well what he’s up against. After beating Berrettini, the Serbian said, “I’m confident (against Nadal). I believe I can win, otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”
- According to INSIGHTS, Nadal has a 56% chance of advancing to the final compared to Djokovic’s 44%. Djokovic’s Clay UTR is 15.95 compared to Nadal’s 16.07 and he hasn’t beaten the Spaniard on clay since Rome in 2016.
No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas vs No. 6 Alexander Zverev
Just like Djokovic (Belgrade) and Nadal (Barcelona and Rome), Tsitsipas (Monte Carlo and Lyon) and Zverev (Madrid) have won titles on clay this spring, reaffirming their status on the surface. Both winning ATP 1000 events on European clay puts them amongst the clay-court elite as legitimate contenders for the Roland Garros title.
Tsitsipas was at his free-flowing best in defeating Medvedev 6-3, 7-6(7), 7-5 in Tuesday’s quarter-finals. Not only did he overcome the mental hurdle of the Russian having a 6-1 head-to-head advantage against him but he also saved two crucial set points in the second set, hit 33 winners to 24 unforced errors, and won 73 percent of first-serve points.
Zverev also looked solid in his 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 win over Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, but the 22-year-old Spaniard was a shadow of himself in the final two sets as he ran out of gas after playing 14 draining sets in his three previous rounds.
Tsitsipas leads the head-to-head against Zverev 5-2 and won their only meeting on clay in Madrid in 2019. They have not met in a Grand Slam, which could be a good sign for Tsitsipas because Zverev has never beaten a Top-10 player on this stage. It took the German 18 Grand Slams before he reached his first semi-final at the 2020 Australian Open.
“I was putting too much pressure on myself,” Zverev said.“Also obviously in the media, before Medvedev and Tsitsipas arrived, I was seen as this guy that was going to all of a sudden take over the tennis world. I was not very patient with myself, which I feel like now maybe I learned how to deal with the situation a little bit better. I’m maybe a little bit calmer at the tournaments.”
Tsitsipas, two years younger, has progressed slightly ahead of the German, at least in the minds of some. Three-time Roland Garros champion Mats Wilander had high praise for the Greek. “Tsitsipas is the most aggressive player I’ve seen on clay since the heyday of John McEnroe in 1984,” the Swede told L’Equipe. “His forehand is more aggressive than Nadal’s or Federer’s. He’s an incredible athlete, solid and fast. He’s got the best physique on the tour.”
Tsitsipas has now reached the semi-finals in three of his last four Grand Slam tournaments: Roland Garros ’20, Australian Open ’21, and Roland Garros ’21.
“I’ve put in a lot of daily hard work and it has been a key element of me being here,” Tsitsipas said. “But you know, my ego tells me I want more.”
- While the Nadal vs. Djokovic match is close, INSIGHTS is giving Tsitsipas a sizeable edge with a 64% chance of reaching his first major final. Tsitsipas has the higher UTR Rating overall, on clay and in the past three months.