PARIS – Novak Djokovic of Serbia knows the road to his first French Open title goes through Rafael Nadal. It is a road he has not crossed before, but one he says he knows he can cross.
“I know what I need to do in order to win,” Djokovic said after defeating Ernests Gulbis of Latvia 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, in a semifinal Friday. “It’s easier said than done, of course, because we all know how good he is on this court. But he’s not unbeatable.”
Nadal looked close to unbeatable when he routed Andy Murray of Scotland 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 in the other semifinal to reach the final at Roland Garros for the fifth straight year. Nadal, the top seed, has lost one set in the tournament.
The French Open is the only Grand Slam tournament Djokovic has not won. Spaniard Nadal, who has won it a record eight times, defeated him in the 2012 final and in five sets in the 2013 semifinals.
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“Knowing that I was that close to win against him the past two years gives me that reason to believe that I can make it this time,” the second-seeded Djokovic said.
The No. 1 world ranking will also be at stake in Sunday’s final, which will be the 42nd meeting between Nadal and Djokovic, adding to an Open-era record for men. Djokovic has won the last four, including the final in Rome on clay last month, cutting Nadal’s lead in their series to 22-19.
Djokovic is 14-1 on clay this year, and while Nadal has had some surprising losses this spring, he is still 24-3 on the surface this season.
“I lost a few matches, but playing the way that I played today, probably I will not,” Nadal said. “But another thing that is true is every week on the clay-court season, I was doing something better.”
And he probably has not been better on clay this season than he was Friday, defeating the seventh-seeded Murray with ruthless efficiency. Nadal won 91 percent of his first-serve points, and lost a mere 10 points on his own serve against one of the game’s best returners.
Murray called it the toughest match he had played against Nadal.
“Today he was hitting extremely hard, extremely heavy, returning well, and was hitting it well on the run,” said Murray, who will turn his focus to defending his Wimbledon title on a grass surface.
Nadal’s forehand was particularly lethal. Fifteen of his 24 winners came from that side, where he had been struggling to hit winners early in the clay season. After nearly two weeks of damp and cool conditions, it was sunny and warm Friday, a blessing for Nadal’s game.
“For me is much better when the weather is like today,” Nadal said. “My ball creates more topspin. The ball goes quicker in the air, and with my forehand I am able to create more with less.”
Meanwhile, Djokovic became fatigued midway through the third set against Gulbis.
The 18th-seeded Gulbis, playing in his first semifinal at a major tournament, acknowledged he was “extra nervous and extra tense.”
Thus Gulbis struggled in the first two sets.
“It was not a good quality tennis at all,” Gulbis said. “It was just grinding and just trying to put the ball in.”