Nadal passes the Djoker test with flying colors

6/6/2008 - Tennis
AP Photo/Michel Spingler

PARIS -- After the most anticipated match of the French Open fizzled into predictability like the elongated hiss of the air escaping a newly opened can of tennis balls, a clearly glowing Rafael Nadal was asked to recall the last time he'd been nervous -- really nervous -- on the center court where he's undefeated.

Nadal, always the people pleaser, vigorously scratched his head and scrunched up his face in deep thought. You could see him rifling through snapshots in his mind, rejecting one after another.

The long pause said more than a thousand words, but Nadal did come up with an answer. He cited matches against two French players, Paul-Henri Mathieu and Sebastien Grosjean, in 2006 and 2005 respectively. Nadal lost a set in each and had to contend with raucous crowds as well.

"No more times, I think," he said.

Novak Djokovic, who lost to Nadal 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (3) Friday, didn't make the list. Notably, neither did Roger Federer, who will try to roll the boulder uphill against Nadal in Sunday's final for the third year in a row.

Coming into this tournament, Djokovic was thought by many to be among the few players to have a chance to make Nadal sweat a bit, to pick the lock and swipe the No. 2 ranking he's held since July 2005. But that hope faded as Nadal rampaged through the bracket without losing a set, gaining momentum as he went.

Friday he mercilessly extinguished it.

"I expected a lot from this match, of course," a downcast Djokovic said afterward.

"I wasn't performing the tennis that I usually can perform, and I think I can do better."

Still, if you have to lose badly in a Grand Slam semifinal, this is the one in which people might cut you the most slack. This court is Nadal's casa. He doesn't just inhabit it, he possesses it, and that is worth much more than nine points of the law in tennis. Just as Federer has the princely prerogative to admire his own prowess in postmatch comments, Nadal is completely within his rights to say that his grip on the first two sets was "almost perfect" and to add that it would be difficult for him to do any better.

For a while it looked as if the only factor that would push the match much beyond the two-hour mark was the deliberate service routine that is the indulgence of both men. But taking time didn't help Djokovic, whose first-serve percentage averaged an abysmal 45 percent through the first two sets.

Meanwhile, in the upper deck, spectators marveled at Nadal's spins and slices, which from above resembled a schematic of a Cold War-era strategic missile defense system. "[Expletive], quelle balle! [What a shot!]" echoed around the seats. Nadal was conservative, for him, in choosing his spots, waiting for Djokovic to make the first misstep in long rallies.

Leading 3-0 in the third set, Nadal perhaps understandably lost some focus. He said he was thinking ahead about wind direction, a heavy handicap on one end of the court. Djokovic wasn't quite beaten into submission and shouldered into the narrow opening by finding his misplaced serve and going full-throttle on his groundstrokes.

He broke Nadal twice and had a set point on Nadal's serve at 6-5, but the triple defending champion struck an inside-out forehand he described as "tough but safe."

"It was tough mentally, because you have the match totally under control, and for some moment you see the match is complicated," Nadal observed of Djokovic's comeback, but it's a measure of the aura he feels here that he was able to remain calm.

"If he wants to beat me, he has to play two more sets like this, no?" Nadal said, arching one eyebrow.

The applause for Djokovic was sustained and warm as he walked off the court, but it wasn't a pity party. Everyone watching knows that these two men will meet again here, and that Djokovic never will concede a point before it happens.

Furthermore, this marks the fifth time in a big event this year that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all made the semifinals, and it won't be the last. Djokovic, like any good athlete, was happy to bring up the next major. "I have no reason not to expect any big results, so I look forward to it," he said of Wimbledon.

Three horses now loom bigger than the others on the carousel, and at any given moment, each of them can generate enough centrifugal force to send the other two packing. Except for here. Tough but safe probably sums up Nadal's campaign for his fourth straight championship as well.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.