Commentary

Tough foes, pressure in Djoker's way

Updated: June 8, 2012, 12:34 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Men's tennis is not a place Cinderella frequents. Andy Murray, ousted from Roland Garros by David Ferrer on Wednesday, says the tournament's final four -- Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Ferrer -- are the best clay-court players in the world. Inside of this truth is where certain intrigues and dramas build.

Ferrer is playing his best tennis but is 4-15 against Nadal. He beat Nadal at the 2011 Australian Open quarters in straight sets, then lost four straight matches, failing to take a set in any of them. They've played twice this year, both times on clay, in Barcelona and Rome. The first set went to a tiebreaker in each, with Nadal outlasting the determined, outgunned Ferrer.

Federer is 3-2 in his career against Djokovic on clay, with each player carrying something to build on. The two met last month in Rome, and Djokovic won 6-2, 7-5 (4). But Federer was the only player to beat Djokovic in a major last year, defeating him in four sets to snap Djokovic's 43-match win streak.

For the entire French Open, Djokovic has been playing against history in addition to his opponents. He's still climbing the mountain of holding all four Grand Slam championship titles at once. Djokovic is nearing the end of the great quest, and his play has showed the consequences of the pressure and the resolve.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic has clearly felt the pressure of his historic quest throughout the French Open.

As odd as it might sound, Federer with his 16 Grand Slam titles and epic, inspiring win over Djokovic last year, is nevertheless a slight underdog when the skies clear. Djokovic has created an aura of invincibility in the biggest moments of a tournament, even though he has been uneven and tested with five-set matches twice during the French Open. Andreas Seppi had Djokovic down two sets to none, and famously, in the best match of the tournament, Djokovic fought off four match points against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

"As far as Novak and Roger, both guys haven't really gotten their total A-game going," said seven-time Grand Slam winner John McEnroe. "There's no reason to believe Roger won't play better. He has to play better if he's going to win.

"Novak, I think, is really feeling the pressure like he did last year. It's impossible not to feel that because he's so close. Roger was this close. He had won three [Grand Slam titles] in a row and was in the finals twice. Rafa was in the same position in Australia.

"[Djokovic was clearly feeling the pressure] when he played Seppi. It was like he was really struggling. Even against Jo, he wasn't was sharp as we've seen him. That's not unexpected, but now that he's gotten here. I think he certainly goes in as a [favorite in the semifinal], and even though he lost to Roger here last year, it's going to be Roger that's going to have to step up, play even quite a bit better in order to win."

The keys for Federer against Djokovic are twofold. The first is to maintain stamina of his backhand. Against Nadal and Djokovic, Federer has been able to sustain rallies with both for roughly a set-and-a-half. As the match progresses, Federer's shot breaks down.

Secondly, Federer will need to hit through Djokovic's defense, something that frustrated and ultimately exposed Tsonga's consistency. On clay, and during his post-U.S. Open resurgence, Federer won 17 straight matches. He employed a more active net game. It will be interesting to see whether his drop shots and short slices will be effective against Djokovic's speed.

Meanwhile, Djokovic's aura is real, but it's also tenuously constructed, and that is, of course, the beauty of sports. It started with that memorable forehand return down two match points against Federer in last year's U.S. Open semifinal. Djokovic's resolve and fight were, of course, on full display again as he stormed back against Seppi and Tsonga here in Paris. Djokovic's shots during crunch time were good by a hair. Tsonga could have found a big serve during the fourth-set tiebreaker. He didn't, though.

McEnroe understands that legends are built when they face defeat and turn it away.

"To get in that frame of mind when you're down match point is pretty depressing, to put it mildly, and to be able to get yourself to execute is harder," McEnroe said. "Your mind is playing tricks on you, and I mean, it's the best match I have ever seen Tsonga play on this surface, for sure, and maybe ever considering how bad he started.

"He hit the line twice that first match point and hit a volley, and that's pretty amazing when you consider he hadn't come to net very much. There's at least three shots in the rally he could've missed. The shot, the forehand against Federer, to me he was frustrated that the crowd had really rallied behind Roger, and he sort of took it out on that shot. [When you hit a shot like that] you go down in the folklore of the history books. It puts you at a level where suddenly you could be talked about as one of the greatest players who ever lived."

And if Djokovic can again navigate his way past Federer, then win the one piece of hardware he so desperately wants, we can then start talking about where Djokovic resides in the pantheon of the very best.