Rafa getting stronger as French reaches final

Rafa and Roger will meet for the second straight year in the French Open final; however, while Federer battled for three hours on Friday, Nadal got better as his match went longer.

Updated: June 8, 2007, 5:49 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

PARIS -- One could argue that the most revealing statistic in Friday's French Open semifinal between Spain's Rafael Nadal and Serbia's Novak Djokovic was also the most straightforward statistic: time.

First set: 66 minutes. 7-5.

Second set: 48 minutes. 6-4.

Third set: 34 minutes. 6-2.

Conclusion: It seldom pays to get in the way of the inevitable.

Djokovic's debut in a Grand Slam final four came in a match where he was least likely to succeed, given his opponent. The advantage for him was that there is no shame in losing to Nadal at Roland Garros.

"This semifinal can only bring me positive things," Djokovic said.

Rafael Nadal
AP Photo/Lionel CironneauRafael Nadal hasn't dropped a set at this year's French Open. Bjorn Borg in 1980 is the last player to win the French without losing a set.
Like a boulder rolling downhill, Nadal gained momentum and pace as the match went along. His contribution to tennis science will be energy equals massive forehand times lateral movement.

Yet it was hard not to wonder how the 20-year-old Djokovic might have fared against No. 1 Roger Federer, who played less than convincingly in the first match of the afternoon.

Djokovic came into the encounter obviously pumped and admirably unafraid. He lured Nadal to the net with drop shots, he volleyed well, he passed and he met Nadal's money shot with considerable power and control of his own.

But he basically had only two or three chances to make it a match, and couldn't close on any of them. Djokovic lost his own serve at love to go down 5-2 in the first set, then worked mightily to even things up, but Nadal broke him and then windmilled a forehand winner on set point.

In the second game of the second set, Djokovic let a triple break point slip away. Down 5-4 late in that same set, he earned another break opportunity when Nadal's mistimed forehand slice dribbled into the net. But Nadal responded by cracking an ace and knocking out the next two points. Djokovic's fuel reserves seemed to dissipate after that.

"If you win on clay against him, you've got to do more, you've got to push him more, push him over the limits," Djokovic said afterward. "And you've got to play a really great tennis and it's got to be your day.

"When we see how fit he is, how much he can go left-right, running without dropping any energy. … He was on one level all the time. And it's not easy to hold on with him, especially on this surface."

Nadal's press conference was marked by mild impatience as reporters picked at the few flaws in his match against Djokovic, and somewhat more pronounced boredom with the same-old, same-old quizzing about him and Federer.

"I think about me always, no?" Nadal said when asked about his game plan for Djokovic. "It's so difficult to think about me, can you imagine if I think about the others every match, no?"

On Federer: "It's nice right now to be with the tops of the history in tennis," Nadal said. "But for me right now, just think about me, no?"


More elaboration followed.

Question: You're at the moment standing between Roger Federer and the greatest achievement in tennis, maybe even in any sport. I know that's not your problem, but have you thought about that? What are your thoughts on that?

Nadal: Sorry, I don't understand.

Question: What Federer could achieve in winning all four Grand Slams, you're the man who has to stop him?

Nadal: Oh, OK.

If you win on clay against him, you've got to do more, you've got to push him more, push him over the limits. And you've got to play a really great tennis and it's got to be your day.

Novak Djokovic on playing Nadal on clay

Nadal then confirmed the widespread suspicion that in this tournament, it is all about him. "I know if I am playing my best tennis, it's going to be very, very -- I don't know if impossible, but very, very difficult," he said, echoing another formidable competitor, Serena Williams.

He was expansive on other subjects, saying he thinks highly of Justine Henin's all-court game and picking her to win a fourth title Saturday. "She's the one I prefer as a tennis player," Nadal said. "She can play beautiful backhands. She runs more on the court. She plays on the angles."

And on the fashion front, Nadal broke news by declaring "I don't want to play with the same shorts, the same pants for the rest of my career, no? Any day, I'm going to change, so I don't know yet."

And you could also theorize that he doesn't want to wear the No. 2 collar for the rest of his career. No wonder he's weary of the questions. He won 81 straight matches on clay over three seasons, yet all anyone is asking him about is the one he lost a month ago to Federer in Hamburg. Can't a guy catch a break?

"In one month, it's difficult to say something, like you are improving a lot, I am playing worst," Nadal said.

"Don't ask nothing more, because I don't know nothing more in English."

No one should expect a 21-year-old wizard to have a detached perspective on his own muscular magic, in any language. Fortunately, on Sunday everyone can finally shut up and watch.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering the French Open for ESPN.com.