Rafael Nadal groused last week that he was playing so badly he might soon be home fishing in Mallorca.
Then came a transformation.
Nadal stood at the net following his latest French Open win wearing that familiar crooked grin, clay caked on his arm, his leg and even the back of his shirt, landlocked and loving it.
The fish were spared, and Nadal has lately enjoyed smooth sailing at Roland Garros heading into his semifinal showdown Friday against top-ranked Novak Djokovic.
After falling behind in each of his first three matches, Nadal has won 12 consecutive sets. He’s 57-1 at Roland Garros and on the verge of becoming the first man to win eight titles at the same Grand Slam event.
”I really am playing better here,” he said. ”I said I needed to make a change. I was confident that I can do it, and I did.”
And so he’s ready to renew his rivalry with Djokovic. The winner will play for the title Sunday against No. 4-seeded David Ferrer or No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who meet in the other semifinal.
Tsonga’s trying to become the first Frenchman since Yannick Noah in 1983 to win Roland Garros, and partisan Parisians might consider his match the main event Friday. But Nadal vs. Djokovic has the feel of a final, and it’s a match much anticipated since the draw was announced two weeks ago.
Because Nadal’s ranking slipped during a recent injury layoff, he and Djokovic wound up in the same half of that draw. As a result, they’ll meet before the final at a major event for the first time in five years.
While tennis players are known to complain, neither Nadal nor Djokovic seems to mind meeting in the semifinals.
”I don’t want to talk about what if,” Djokovic said. ”It’s going to be a good match.”
Nadal’s 19-15 against Djokovic, including 12-3 on clay, 6-3 in Grand Slam events and 4-0 at the French Open. Nadal won when they met in the final at Roland Garros a year ago.
But he bristled at the suggestion he’s the favorite this time.
”I don’t care at all,” he said through a translator. ”Frankly, what words could I find to tell you? I mean, what else can I say? I try and play my best tennis, and the least of my concerns is to know if I’m favored or not. These are words that will be carried away by the wind.”
He knows too well that Djokovic’s dangerous even on Nadal’s best surface. The Serb won their most recent meeting six weeks ago in the Monte Carlo final on clay, although that was best-of-three sets, rather than the more grueling Grand Slam format that plays to Nadal’s strength.
”It’s tough to compare,” Djokovic said. ”It’s best-of-five here, Grand Slam, different conditions. But still, there is some kind of mental edge maybe if you win against or lose against somebody in the previous encounters. … I have a good game for him because my style is to be aggressive, but I can also defend well and have that transition game. I’m going to be confident and step into the court with self-belief that I can win.”
Djokovic has cause for confidence. The six-time Grand Slam champion has reached the semifinals at 12 consecutive major tournaments, and he’s 33-4 this year.
”I’m glad that I have been playing very consistent and always playing my best tennis in the Grand Slams,” he said. ”That’s what I want.”
Roland Garros is the only major title he has yet to win, but with two more victories this week, he would become the eighth man to complete a career Grand Slam.
And he has beaten Nadal more than any other player.
”I know what it takes to win against him,” Djokovic said.
He’s one of only two players to defeat Nadal this year. Since returning in February from his seven-month layoff because of a left knee injury, Nadal is 41-2 with six titles.
But he looked vulnerable when the French Open began, dropping the opening set in each of his first two matches – remarkable considering he has lost only 16 sets in nine years at Roland Garros. His shots lacked their usual depth and sting, and there was speculation his troublesome knees were hindering his movement and leaving him on the defensive.
Then the heat rose in Paris, and Nadal warmed to his task.
”It has always been the case: The deeper I go, the better I play usually,” Nadal said. ”It’s the same this year. It’s the same old story.”
In recent matches the left-hander has looked much more comfortable striking the ball, his vicious saw-blade topspin reducing each opponent’s one-handed backhand to shreds.
Djokovic has a two-handed backhand. He also has the superior serve, the larger repertoire of shots and plenty of motivation.
He has listed the French Open as his most important tournament this year. And when his childhood coach died last week in Belgrade, he said he wanted to win the title for her.
But the match also means plenty to Nadal, his clay-court reign at stake each time he takes the court.
”I’m going to be nervous,” he said. ”If not, go home and do another thing. Because if you are not nervous to play the semifinals against the best player of the world, it’s because you are not enjoying or you don’t feel passion for this game.”