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PARIS -- A dozen years ago, Novak Djokovic and Ernests Gulbis became friends at Niki Pilic's tennis academy outside of Munich.
Djokovic, two years older, cracked the top 100 first, at the age of 18, and two years later collected his first Grand Slam singles title in Melbourne. Gulbis was also 18 when he entered the top 100 and his first major sniff came six years ago here at Roland Garros. Djokovic beat Gulbis in three straight but markedly taut sets.
Fast-forward to this year's French Open, where the two men met again Friday for the first time in a Grand Slam since that day in Paris. Although Djokovic has been the best among ATP World Tour players since the Australian Open, Gulbis -- after some soul-searching -- has been the best he has ever been, winning two titles and achieving a career-high ranking.
|With one more win, Novak Djokovic will have completed the coveted career Grand Slam.|
Their collision Friday in the semifinals held the potential for intrigue, if only Gulbis could maintain his ethereal level that was too much for Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych in the earlier rounds. For four games, he defied that gravity. But in the fifth, Djokovic and Gulbis were revealed as the players we thought they were: Djokovic, a ludicrously consistent master of keeping the ball in play, and Gulbis, prone to errors and emotional distress when under duress.
Djokovic, the No. 2 seed, won by the deceptively easy score of 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 to advance to the Sunday final of the only Grand Slam he has never won. He will play world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who crushed Andy Murray in the second semifinal.
The difference? Gulbis, reportedly suffering from a back ailment, produced 44 unforced errors, while Djokovic had only 25. This was Gulbis' deepest run at a Slam.
It was sunny and 80 degrees Friday, the hottest day of the tournament and Djokovic appeared to struggle physically. He was asked how he was feeling after the match.
"There is nothing bothering me," he said. "Just the general fatigue that, you know, probably was influenced by conditions or other things that I felt today. But I'm not going to talk about. That's it. I just I'm glad I won in four sets, because if it went to a fifth, God knows in which direction the match could go.
"I'm just going to rest today and tomorrow, try to not spend too much energy on the courts, and get ready for finals."
So it's all in front of Djokovic: The 27-year-old from Serbia will regain the No. 1 ranking if Nadal doesn't win here. Now that Rafa has beaten Murray, which was presumed by virtually everyone, Djokovic will be the only man left in a position to do that.
"Well, there is not going to be a significant difference in my tactics against Nadal comparing to other prior matches that are played, especially the one in Rome," Djokovic said. "I'm going to try to be aggressive, because that is the only way I can win against him. ...
"It's easier said than done, of course, because we all know how good he is on this court. But he's not unbeatable. You know, winning against him last couple of matches in the finals, big events, definitely gives me confidence that I can do it again."
Djokovic, it must be said, is playing like a man on fire. He has won 18 of 20 sets through his first six matches and now has won 11 matches in a row. Even though Nadal has lost only once on these hallowed grounds, Djokovic is technically the favorite.
He is driven by his results in the past three majors, solid efforts for the rank and file but unacceptable in his mind. He was exhausted in last year's Wimbledon final and Murray took him out in straight sets. Nadal, in the midst of a scintillating hard-court run, beat Djokovic in the US Open final in four sets. At this year's Australian Open, he lost a wrenching four-hour quarterfinal match to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka. That prevented him from winning a fourth consecutive title Down Under and that loss in particular seemed to thrust him forward with a new determination.
The three most important tournaments since? Djokovic won them all -- Indian Wells, Miami and Rome. He beat Nadal in the latter two and you can bet a double cafe crème and a croissant that Djokovic would love to take down the King of Clay in his most natural of habitats and regain that No. 1 ranking.
For the first four games, Gulbis was contained and well-focused. But serving at 2-all, his attention seemed to drift -- perhaps because he had failed to convert two break points in the game before. Djokovic, returning his serves with authority, forged four break opportunities before converting when an off-balance forehand from Gulbis flew long.
The first two forehands in the next game missed by at least 15 feet and Gulbis seemed to have reverted to the hard-partying, under-practicing player whose ranking fell outside the top 100 two years ago. He dropped the first two sets, but cashed in his first break chance of the match with Djokovic serving at 3-4 in the third.
It was characteristic of both men that Djokovic struggled to hold his first service game of the fourth (but did), then broke Gulbis immediately to gain the upper hand. The Latvian returned the favor but lost contact for good serving at 3-4. His listless backhand found the net and Djokovic served out the match.
"It requires a little bit of an adjustment, because we played for over 10 days of the tournament in overcast and a little bit heavier conditions," Djokovic said. "The ball wasn't bouncing as high as it did today. Today the hitting point was a bit higher, so you had to adjust to that.
"And, of course, it was strong sun. That also affects the fatigue of the players. It was a lot of exchanges we had, a lot of long rallies. But at the end of the day, in the end of the match I managed to find a necessary rhythm."
Afterward, Gulbis was completely transparent about what had transpired.
"Difference in the match was, first of all, I'm not used to play these kind of big matches," he said. "It's just normal I felt extra nervous and extra tense. It's just that he was more consistent, especially in the end. He just put the ball twice over the net, and I missed it the third shot. That's it.
"The more I play these kind of matches, the more I'm going to get used to these situations."
Lost in the glare of the 30 Grand Slam singles titles won collectively by Federer and Nadal is a man who would doubtless have been successful in any era. As it is, Djokovic already has six major championship trophies, matching Boris Becker, who has been an upbeat presence in his entourage, and Stefan Edberg. Winning here would draw Djokovic even with John McEnroe and Mats Wilander.
Not one of those men showed the diversity of game to reach multiple finals at each Grand Slam event. Now, Djokovic has done that, joining only five other men in Open era history -- Federer, Nadal, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl and Ken Rosewall.
Now, he'd like to beat Rafa at Roland Garros -- something that has happened only once.