Commentary

Djokovic thriving under pressure

Updated: June 9, 2012, 1:54 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- More than five hours before his semifinal match with Roger Federer, the world's No. 1-ranked player, white hat sitting backward on his head, smashed serve after serve into the deuce court.

The sun was high over Court Philippe Chatrier, and there were about 40 people scattered around the 15,000-seat venue. Ushers placed thick seat cushions in the French Tennis Federation box, television technicians tested their equipment and the few spectators who had wandered in could not believe their good fortune.

And when he was finished, Novak Djokovic -- like the thoroughbred he is -- was covered with a fine sheen of perspiration. He ambled toward the tunnel, head down. As he left the one Grand Slam court in the world on which he has not been ordained a champion, you wondered what thoughts were coursing through his brain.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
AP Photo/Bernat ArmangueNovak Djokovic isn't quite playing up to last year's standards, but he still finds himself one win away from history.

Making history can create some terrible burdens, and the 25-year-old Serb has come to Roland Garros under staggering pressure these past two years. A year ago, Federer ended his 43-match win streak in the semifinals. On Friday, Djokovic was trying to win his 27th consecutive Grand Slam singles match -- and it was Federer who again tried to deny him.

This time, Djokovic rose to the historic occasion. Actually, he soared. He defeated Federer 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 to reach the French Open final for the first time.

After Federer's last, weak backhand service return was short, Djokovic pounded his heart with his right hand and stared in the direction of his box. That was about right.

If he can beat Rafael Nadal in Sunday's meeting (it's their fourth straight Grand Slam final matchup) he will simultaneously own all four major titles, something achieved by two other men, Don Budge and Rod Laver, most recently 43 years ago.

Appropriately, that 27th straight victory tied him with Federer (who did it twice) for second on the all-time list, two behind Laver.

"Well, there's a lot on the line," Djokovic said. "It always is when you're playing finals of a Grand Slam.

"Obviously, considering the matches that we played against each other in the last 15 months, we expect another emotional match, another big challenge for both of us, fighting for one of the four biggest titles in our sport.

"And of course, the other side, for me personally, is that I have this golden opportunity to make history."

It was a helter-skelter match in terms of serving; there were 11 breaks in 31 service games. Federer was game, but he made too many mistakes; he was credited with 46 unforced errors, compared to only 17 for Djokovic. For Federer, this tournament will be remembered as the one in which he passed Jimmy Connors for the most Grand Slam singles matches won. He'll enter Wimbledon at 237 and counting.

Afterward, Federer said he didn't react well to the blustery conditions.

"I was struggling to sort of keep the ball in play probably long enough, even though I wasn't hitting the ball poorly," Federer said. "It's been a tough week for me the last couple [matches]. Maybe in these conditions today didn't help me, help the cause; let's put it that way.

"I did have enough chances, so it's no excuse there. I tried, and it just didn't work out today."

Later, he grudgingly gave Djokovic some credit for the result.

"Maybe it was more straightforward because, obviously, Novak forces the issue as well," Federer said. So there's a bit more reacting going on than actually deciding where you want to hit the ball and how many different possibilities can you hit it in a certain corner.

"That was, I think, a bit of my issue."

How much pressure was Djokovic feeling? It depended on which former Grand Slam champion you talked to. Martina Navratilova, a Tennis Channel analyst and winner of 18 major singles titles, believed reaching the semifinals might have freed Djokovic.

"Pressure is off him, for sure, getting to the semis," Navratilova said earlier Friday. "Now if he loses to one of these guys, it's OK. Last year, he comes here unbeaten, and I think that cost him in the semis. I think he was nervous about it.

"As we say, pressure is a privilege, and he earned it. So I think he's going to play his best tennis now because the pressure is off. It's going to take an amazing effort from Federer to beat him."

John McEnroe, of NBC and winner of seven major titles, had a different view.

"There's nothing, obviously, better than the chance of doing something that hasn't been done for 43 years -- having four majors in a row," he said. "So that alone makes it almost impossible to play as well as you can because the pressure alone and the expectation to have to be able to do that and execute is almost impossible."

We'll give that one to Navratilova.

Although Nadal sliced through the field the reach the final -- he has yet to drop a set and has averaged a 6-2 score in the 18 sets he has played -- Djokovic and Federer dodged and weaved their way into the semifinals. Djokovic dropped the first two sets to Andreas Seppi in the fourth round and two of the first three to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals. Djokovic (who saved four match points against the Frenchman) rallied on both occasions to win dramatic five-set matches that clocked more than four hours. Federer lost the first two sets to Juan Martin del Potro in the quarters, but won the final three sets easily as del Potro faded with a knee injury.

This kind of messy work in the early going has become more routine for the 30-year-old Federer the past few years. Djokovic's struggles, however, have been more mental than physical. That said, going forward there will be questions about Djokovic's health.

He reportedly tweaked a hamstring muscle in the quarterfinals against Tsonga when he stopped abruptly during a point. In the first game of the second set, during a magnificent 36-stroke rally, Djokovic landed awkwardly and seemed to be in pain. Grimacing and walking with a slight limp, he was broken by Federer but gradually found equilibrium. Apparently, Djokovic's straight-sets win over Federer three weeks ago in Rome was not a fluke.

Nadal, who is playing better than ever here -- which translates to something beyond ethereal -- will be an overwhelming favorite to win the final. But Djokovic, though not as dominant as he was in 2011, has managed to win the two most prestigious titles, in Melbourne and Miami.

Federer, who is genuinely fond of Rafa (but not Djokovic), offered a prediction.

"Yeah, my pick is not a surprising one," he said. "I obviously pick Rafa. I think he's the overwhelming favorite."

Djokovic is OK with that.

"It's a final, so, again, I think it's unpredictable what's going to happen because we are top two players, and we have played so many times last year and a half in so many finals," Djokovic said. "He is a favorite because of all the facts that we just mentioned. But I believe in myself. I think I have a chance."

But Djokovic declined to offer a specific percentage.

"I'm really not good at numbers," he said.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.