Djokovic, Nadal play Paris Open final a match early
Semi-final match-up of the world No 1 and the most successful clay-court player in history delivers premature drama at Roland Garros
It has been nearly two weeks since a murmur and a few groans went through the room in Paris after Rafael Nadal landed on the same side of the French Open draw as Novak Djokovic.
The men's tournament has been a waiting game ever since, but the wait will end today when Djokovic, the world's No 1 player, and Nadal, the most successful clay-court player in history, face each other in the semi-finals.
It will feel like a final before the final, but neither the top-seeded Djokovic nor the third-seeded Nadal was prepared to bemoan that incongruity after their straight-set victories at Roland Garros.
Nadal was the more impressive, routing the resurgent Swiss player Stanislas Wawrinka, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1, on the main Philippe Chatrier Court in the brilliant sunshine. Djokovic was nearly as efficient across the concourse in the smaller Suzanne Lenglen Court, warding off the multipronged threat posed by the 35-year-old German Tommy Haas and winning, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), 7-5.
Today's other semi-final will match David Ferrer of Spain and the Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, neither of whom has won a grand slam title.
"It is what it is," Djokovic said of facing Nadal one round earlier than usual. "I don't want to talk about what if, what if. We are playing the semi-final and we are both in good shape, and it's going to be a good match."
Their match was the final here last year, a two-day, mood-shifting ordeal that was interrupted by rain when Djokovic was taking command on the Sunday evening. Nadal won in four sets to secure a record-setting seventh singles title at Roland Garros.
But Nadal has definitely lost on his favourite surface to Djokovic. Though Nadal has won 12 of their 15 matches on clay, they have split the last six.
Djokovic can generate power and leverage with his two-handed backhand even on high, fast-spinning balls, neutralising one of Nadal's trump cards. He has the speed, reach and defensive prowess to force Nadal to go for more than usual, generating errors. He won their most recent match, defeating Nadal in straight sets in April in the Monte Carlo final.
"That is something that can maybe give me that mental edge when I step onto the court, knowing I already won against him on clay this season," Djokovic said.
Djokovic would seem to have the most at stake statistically. While Nadal has already won this title seven times and won all four of the grand slam tournaments, Djokovic is still missing the Roland Garros trophy.
In Australia in January, Djokovic made it clear that winning the French Open was his major goal this season, and he has embraced the symbolism of trying to win it for his childhood coach, Jelena Gencic, who died in Serbia on Saturday at the age of 76. At the memorial service for Gencic in Belgrade this week, Djokovic's mother, Dijana, read a letter from her son addressed to Gencic.
"I am sad beyond limits that I cannot come to the funeral," the letter read. "I know you would be angry if I give up and diminish my chances to fulfil our last wish to win Roland Garros."
Djokovic's ability to articulate his emotions is nearly as striking as his elastic ability to turn defence into offence. It is rare that he does not give a considered answer unless he is going for laughs.
Through the years, he and Nadal have answered many questions about each other. Though Nadal's rivalry with Roger Federer has received more attention, Djokovic and Nadal have faced off more often than any men in this era. This will be their 35th meeting, with Nadal holding a 19-15 edge. Nadal and Federer have played 30 times, with Nadal holding a 20-10 advantage.
Djokovic was asked whether there was a chance that this semi-final could be faster than last year's Australian Open final, which required five hours 53 minutes for Djokovic to beat Nadal. "Do you want to see more than six hours' match?" Djokovic asked with a chuckle. "I'm sure I don't want to be six hours on the court."
There seemed little danger of marathon records on Wednesday as Djokovic and Nadal dispatched the opposition in quarter-finals that ended within minutes of each other.
On the warmest day of the tournament, Nadal's forehand was particularly lively and devastating, breaking down Wawrinka's one-handed backhand with the same sort of ruthless regularity that it has broken down Federer's one-hander.
"It's difficult to be as strong with the backhand at shoulder height, which is where you have to hit it against Nadal again and again," Wawrinka said.
"I think today I played my best match of the year in this tournament," Nadal said.