The collision of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic here in the semi-finals of the French Open has looked as inevitable as a rush-hour traffic jam on the Périphérique and the two juggernauts duly booked their showdown.
Nadal, the seven-times champion of Roland Garros, and Djokovic, the world No 1, will meet today for the right to face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or David Ferrer in Sunday’s final.
There was an appropriate symmetry about the two favourites’ quarter-final matches, which finished within five minutes of each other.
Nadal was the first into the winners’ enclosure, beating Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 after an hour and 56 minutes on Philippe Chatrier Court. Djokovic might have beaten Nadal by a short head if he had not failed to serve out for the match against Tommy Haas when he led 5-4 in the third set on Suzanne Lenglen Court, but the Serb broke back immediately and won 6-3, 7-6, 7-5 after two hours and 13 minutes.
Nadal, who dropped the first set in both his first two matches, has improved along with the quality of his opponents. Wawrinka, who has been one of the year’s outstanding players, was on the back foot from the moment he was broken in the opening game. The Swiss, who has never reached a Grand Slam semi-final, briefly threatened when he retrieved an early break in the second set to level at 3-3, but Nadal won the next eight games in a row.
While Nadal has an extraordinary history at Roland Garros – the Spaniard has won 57 of his 58 matches here – Djokovic is building a hugely impressive record of consistency in Grand Slam tournaments. He is through to his 12th successive semi-final, a record bettered only by Roger Federer, whose run of 23 semi-finals in a row ended at Wimbledon three years ago.
Haas had beaten Djokovic in straight sets in their most recent meeting, but the 35-year-old German, who was attempting to become the oldest men’s semi-finalist here for 45 years, rarely looked capable of upsetting the odds. His best chance came in the second set tie-break, but from 4-2 up he lost five of the next six points.
The overall head-to-head record between Nadal and Djokovic stands at 19-15 in favour of the Spaniard, but on clay the Serb has won just three times out of 15. Djokovic, nevertheless, won their most recent meeting, when he denied Nadal a ninth successive Monte Carlo title two months ago.
“I need to be at the top of my game throughout the whole match, because that’s what it’s going to take to win against him,” Djokovic said as he looked ahead to the semi-final.
“This is the biggest match-up of our Roland Garros 2013 campaign for both me and him. I guess it’s the small details and a few points that can decide the winner. That’s why I need to be very disciplined and focused in order to get emotionally, physically and mentally ready.”
Nadal, who said that in beating Wawrinka he had played his best match of the tournament so far, was similarly cautious. “I know that I will be playing against the best player in the world,” he said. “I’ll just try to play my way, find my rhythm and play my best match. That’s the only way to have a chance.’