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Roland Garros: Present and future seek glory in men’s semis

  • Matt Trollope

When you look at the players remaining at the semifinal stage of the men’s singles at Roland Garros, it makes sense according to almost every metric. 

Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev represent four of the world’s top six, as well as the four most in-form clay-court players in the game.

Tsitsipas, Zverev and Nadal scooped the three clay-court ATP Masters titles leading up to Paris, in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome respectively. 

Djokovic, a finalist in Rome before his clay-court triumph in Belgrade, is on a nine-match winning streak, as is Tsitsipas, while Nadal is unbeaten in his last 10 matches.

The mighty Spaniard is a 13-time champion at Roland Garros. Djokovic is the world No.1. Tsitsipas has won more main-draw matches on clay than anybody in 2021. And Zverev is building an increasingly imposing second-week record at the majors. 

Interestingly, the two semifinal matches take on vastly different complexions. 

Djokovic and Nadal, modern-day legends of the game aged in their mid-30s, will meet for an extraordinary 58th time, with 17 of those matches coming at Slams, and nine at Roland Garros alone.

By contrast, Tsitsipas and Zverev – in their early 20s and considered future stars of the sport – have only met seven times previously, and never before at a Grand Slam tournament.

Novak Djokovic v Rafael Nadal

“Obviously it's a well-anticipated semifinal. A lot of people talked about that potential match-up. Here we are,” said Djokovic, after his four-set quarterfinal win over Matteo Berrettini.

While the Serbian star leads the head-to-head series against his arch-rival 29-28, one match will stand out in his mind above all others.

That was his last meeting against Nadal at Roland Garros, in which Nadal powered to a 6-0 6-2 7-5 victory to win his 20th major singles title.

RELATED: Nadal beats Djokovic for 20th major title

“Last year he just dominated the finals against me. Obviously different conditions are going to be played on Friday. Hopefully going to be able to also perform at the high(er) level than I have, especially in the first two sets in the last year's final,” he said.

“The quality and the level of tennis that I've been playing in the last three, four weeks on clay – Rome, Belgrade and here – is giving me good sensations and feelings ahead of that match. 

“I'm confident. I believe I can win, otherwise I wouldn't be here.”

Indeed, Djokovic has won 13 of his past 14 matches, with his only loss in that span coming in three sets to Nadal in the Rome final.

So far in Paris, Nadal has looked imperious, dropping just one set and improving his record at the tournament to a jaw-dropping 105-2.

“(The) best thing is you know that you need to play your best tennis. Always a big challenge. That's something that is good because in some way we are practicing, we are living the sport for these moments,” Nadal said of facing Djokovic, against whom he owns a 7-1 record at Roland Garros.

“The negative thing, it's difficult because you play against one of the best players of the history.”

“History” is an element adding an extra layer of significance to this meeting.

Should Djokovic win, it puts him one match away from a 19th Grand Slam singles trophy, and just one behind Nadal and Roger Federer on 20.

But should Nadal triumph, he moves to within one victory of a men’s record 21st Slam title.

Stefanos Tsitsipas v Alexander Zverev

Will recent results, or long-term trends, count for more in this meeting?

If it is the former, that bodes well for Zverev, who won the pair’s last match in straight sets in the Acapulco final in March.

However, the latter is in Tsitsipas’ favour, given he defeated Zverev five straight times before that and has won five of their seven meetings overall.

Tsitsipas barely acknowledged Zverev when asked what his plan would be when facing the German in Friday’s semifinals. 

“Good rehab and good practice and good nutrition, all these three,” said Tsitsipas, instead focusing on his plan for his off day, rather than his opponent. 

At 22 years of age, Stefanos Tsitsipas could become the youngest Roland Garros men's finalist since Rafael Nadal in 2008, and the youngest man to do so at any Slam since Andy Murray at Australian Open 2010. (Getty Images)

And this is consistent with the Greek’s mental approach to matches this fortnight; it has been less about the opposition and more about what he needs to do to maintain the level that has seen him win 21 of 24 clay-court matches in 2021.

“I'm playing good. That will show by itself,” he said. “I think if I keep repeating the process, keep repeating the everyday hustle that I put, for sure there's going to be a reward.”

Zverev, after dropping the first two sets in his opening-round match against Oscar Otte, has won his last 15 in a row to arrive in the semifinals. Tsitsipas has dropped just one set en route to the final four.

REPORT: Tsitsipas, Zverev into semifinals

Both should be fresh as they attempt to take another step closer to their ultimate goal of a first ever Grand Slam singles title.

“It's fairly obvious that all tennis players are playing for the slams,” Zverev said. 

“Maybe the last few years, I was putting too much pressure on myself. In the media I was seen, before (Daniil) Medvedev and Tsitsipas arrived, 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.

“But the end goal hasn't changed.”