Playing spoiler role OK with Federer
PARIS -- It's quite a billing, and from the world No. 1, no less: "The best player of the world today against the best player [in] history."
That's Rafael Nadal describing the semifinal matchup between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer at the French Open. The two will battle to see whether there is still a three-way power split in the men's game or whether Djokovic and Nadal have become the ruling pair.
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For Djokovic, it is a chance to become No. 1, to tie Johnny Mac's record 42-0 unbeaten start to the season and get a shot at his first French Open title.
And Federer, who is usually trying to make history, finds himself trying to stop it. "I think there's less at stake for me than for him," Federer said. "He's got a lot of things going on for him.
"Now maybe the streak is less at stake in some ways because it's more of a big match against me so it's easier to focus just on playing me instead of the whole situation.
Not that Federer doesn't have his own goals. "Sure, I'd love to be again in the Grand Slam final because I haven't achieved that in a few Slams," he said. The Swiss has been gliding through this tournament, spending an average of less than two hours on court for each match. But how will he respond to the first serious pressure he is about to face during these two weeks?
"I mean, he's been playing fantastic this season, so I know I have to play some of my best tennis," Federer said. "I have a couple of days to prepare for that and come up with a good game plan. I don't think I have to change a whole lot, but there is a lot to change because it's a clay-court match."
Djokovic, meanwhile, has been able to put his feet up for four days after receiving a walkover in the quarterfinals from Fabio Fognini. Federer knows what that's like: He was the beneficiary of a walkover at Wimbledon in 2007, when Tommy Haas dropped out of their round of 16 clash. He also knows what it's like to be on a streak like Djokovic's, having once won 41 matches in a row himself.
"I think he's done really, really well," Federer said. "And he's keeping it up, you know. He's not making a big fuss about it, which is a good thing for him. "Obviously a big question remains: How long can you keep it up?
"It's just hard day in and day out to be asked the question, 'How many more wins can you get?' You would just like to, you know, not talk about it. Just go out there and do it over and over again."
But, Federer added, the occasion means that Djokovic can focus on the match instead of numbers. "Now maybe the streak is less at stake in some ways because it's more of a big match against me so it's easier to focus just on playing me instead of the whole situation," Federer said.
One of these days, Djokovic will have a bad day and lose, though no one knows when that day will be. If it doesn't happen in the semifinal, Federer will need to have a good day with his serve and forehand to have a reasonable chance of winning. He'll also need to mix up play with slices and net approaches. Anything except letting Djokovic play the game he's been playing all year.
Djokovic, meanwhile, will come back from his four-day vacation wanting to pick up exactly where he left off. "I think I'm playing really well at this moment," he said after defeating Richard Gasquet in the fourth round last week. "And this match today I think I even increased a level since the last match, which makes me even more happier. So I just want to maintain this level."
The match is becoming a familiar one. They will now meet for the third time in the past three Grand Slam semifinals, with Djokovic having won both of the previous two. The 24-year-old Serb has also won all three matches so far this year, though Federer did take all three they played in the fall last year. It will be their first meeting on clay since 2009, which Djokovic won in a deciding third.
Everyone should keep an eye on this latest encounter, according to the man whom the winner might face in the final. "I would watch it, if I was a spectator," Nadal said. "Going to be, in my opinion, fantastic match."
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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