'I'm in the minor semifinal' says Rafa Nadal

HOWARD FENDRICH
Last updated 07:18 03/06/2011
Rafael Nadal
Reuters
SECOND FIDDLE: Rafael Nadal says he would love to be a spectator at the Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic French Open semifinal.

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Even Rafael Nadal acknowledges his French Open semifinal against Andy Murray is not nearly as intriguing as the one between unbeaten Novak Djokovic and 16-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer.

"It's the best player of today against the best player in history. ... It's going to be a beautiful match," Nadal said. "I would watch it - if I was a spectator."

Sure, there's a lot on the line for the entire quartet of men who'll be playing at Roland Garros on Friday, which one might expect, given that it's only the 12th time in the Open era, which dates to 1968, that the top four seeded players reached the semifinals at any Grand Slam tournament.

Top-seeded Nadal, for example, is bidding to tie Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open championships. No. 4 Murray is dealing with an injured right ankle as he hopes to win his first Grand Slam title - and give Britain its first male champion at a major tennis tournament since 1936.

No. 3 Federer, meanwhile, has gone more than 16 months without reaching a Grand Slam final, which doesn't sound too bad unless you consider it's the guy's longest gap since he won Wimbledon in 2003.

Lofty aims, certainly. But nothing compared to what No. 2 Djokovic is chasing:

-The 24-year-old Serb is 41-0 in 2011, and a win over Federer would allow Djokovic to tie John McEnroe's record for best start to a season in the Open era, 42-0 in 1984.

-Add in two victories for Serbia against France in the Davis Cup final in December, and Djokovic's winning streak stands at 43 overall, three shy of Guillermo Vilas' mark of 46 in a row in 1977.

-Djokovic is seeking to reach his first final in Paris; if he were to win the title, he'd be the first man since Jim Courier in 1992 to win the Australian Open and French Open in the same year.

-If he beats Federer, Djokovic will be assured of rising to No. 1 in the ATP rankings for the first time, no matter what happens in the Nadal-Murray semifinal or in Sunday's championship match.

"To be honest, I'm thinking about this tournament only. I definitely want to go as far as I can in Roland Garros. And then, you know, if the No. 1 ranking comes this week, I'll be more than happy, definitely," Djokovic said. "But it's not something I'm thinking about."

In the women's final Saturday, No. 5 Francesca Schiavone of Italy, the defending champion, will face No. 6 Li Na of China. Li eliminated Maria Sharapova of Russia 6-4, 7-5 Thursday, while Schiavone beat Marion Bartoli of France 6-3, 6-3.

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Djokovic has had plenty of idle time to ponder things: He hasn't played a match since winning in the fourth round Sunday.

He got a walkover in the quarterfinals when his opponent, Fabio Fognini of Italy, withdrew because of a left leg muscle injury.

"I'm sure, for Novak, it will be a little bit strange; five days off in the middle of a Grand Slam is very rare. He definitely wouldn't have been through it before. We were talking about it a little bit the last couple of days. Like, what would you actually do if you had five days during a Grand Slam? Would you play some sets? Would you take it easy?" said Murray, a three-time major finalist. "I know he's played a lot of tennis, but he's got to be switched on from the start against Roger, because he's playing Roger."

Federer was the last player to beat Djokovic, back in November at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, and holds a 13-9 edge in their career series.

But Djokovic is 3-0 against Federer this season, all on hard courts.

That includes Djokovic's win in the semifinals en route to his second Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January. Djokovic also beat Federer in the U.S. Open semifinals in September, saving two match points along the way.

Djokovic's winning streak is the talk of tennis at the moment. He's won all seven tournaments he's entered in 2011, beating Nadal in four of the finals; two on clay, at Madrid and Rome last month.

"He's not making a big fuss about it, which is a good thing for him," said Federer, who once won 41 consecutive matches. "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 questions. 'How many more wins can you get?' You would just like to not talk about it. Just go out there and do it, over and over again."

Djokovic, who turned 24 on the first day of this tournament, is roundly praised by others for having become more mature, on the court and off.

The physical talent's been there for quite some time - his spectacular two-handed backhand, his as-good-as-anyone's return of serve and court coverage - but even Djokovic admits he only recently has managed to get his mind right.

"It's really a (demanding) sport. You have to travel and play so many matches on different surfaces, different continents, different countries. It really is a mental game," Djokovic said. "I'm still young. But I have a lot of experience, and I have been trying to learn every single day of my career. Now it's getting together."

And now it's Federer - owner of more Grand Slam singles titles than any man, including from the 2009 French Open - who finds himself in the role of potential spoiler.

"There's less at stake for me than for him," Federer said. "He's got a lot of things going."

- AP

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