Roger Federer celebrates after beating Juan Martin del Potro to reach the semifinals.
© Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
PARIS -- There are few things that Roger Federer hasn’t accomplished, but at the age of 30, the Swiss is still very driven, which is why when he walks out on court against No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the Roland Garros semis on Friday, he will be expecting to win if he plays his best.
The 16-times Grand Slam champion does concede that having lost the last five of their six matches does matter, but deep down inside, he counts his sole win in that period -- a 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) victory over Djokovic in the 2011 Roland Garros semis -- as a very significant one.
In fact, there is no way that either man will be able to put that match completely behind them. Last year, Federer stopped Djokovic's 43-match winning streak in a match in which the Serbian played reasonably well but appeared too cautious during he big moments.
Federer -- who perhaps is more conscious of the ebbs and flows of pressure moments than anyone in history -- seized the opportunity.
Djokovic says that he is enjoying the pressure that goes along with his quest to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four straight Grand Slams. But there is little doubt that the reason why Djokovic needed five sets to repel Andreas Seppi and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the round of 16 and the quarters is because his mind is cloudy and he's over-thinking points, largely due to outside pressure.
Five-time US Open champion Federer can relate to what the Serbian is going through mentally, as he had two opportunities to win four straight majors in 2006 and 2007 but was thumped both times by Rafael Nadal in Paris. So can Nadal, who himself had a chance to pull off the feat at the 2011 Australian Open but fell to David Ferrer in the quarters.
Now its Federer’s turn again to stop the Serbian, who has won four of the last five majors. He needed five sets to get past Juan Martin del Potro in the quarters and also dropped sets to Adrian Unger, Nicolas Mahut and David Goffin.
"Both guys have not really gotten their total 'A' game going," said former U.S. Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe. "It's difficult to say what's going to happen if one or both of these guys could and may step it up. Everyone expected this match. When it happens, maybe they can sort of find their best level. There is no reason to believe that 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. Now that he's gotten here, I expect [Djokovic] to play better. Even though he lost to Roger here last year, it's going to be Roger that's going to have to play even quite a bit better in order to win."
That may not be the case, as it's unknown whether Djokovic will be able to pick up his level or not, but it's fair to say that given that Djokovic has been able to beat the Swiss in two out of the three last Grand Slams -- including fighting off two match points against the Swiss at the 2011 US Open -- and that he took him down three weeks ago in the semifinals of Rome on red clay, that he has to be called the favorite.
But Federer has had a very good this year, winning Rotterdam, Dubai, Indian Wells and on the blue clay of Madrid. But he has not won a major since the 2010 Australian Open, and although he constantly goes deep at every Slam, Djokovic and Nadal have combined to the win the last eight majors.
At the age of 30, Federer has to show that he still has the legs and willpower to overcome those two on the world's biggest stages.
"Obviously it helps to win one like [Novak] did in Rome, "Federer said. "But, then again, this is the best situation. It's the best of five. It's something we're not, I don't want to say, accustomed to anymore as much because we did play many more best-of-five-set matches, let's say, seven to 10 years ago, when many of the tournaments were best-of-five-set finals.
"So you used to play many more. Now, all of a sudden, you can go six months and not play almost any five setter, and even three years, so it's a different approach, and I think we're both aware of that. We're looking forward to it. Give us more time to find our range, and once we find our range, it's going to be tough for the opponent."
Federer has to do many things right to win the contest if Djokovic is at a high level: he has to serve great, return deep, attack short balls, not shy away from the net and win the forehand-to-forehand battles.
The 25-year-old Djokovic certainly wants revenge from last year, and while it's hard to see Federer jumping up and down about the possibility of facing Rafael Nadal in the final (the Spaniard has beaten him five times in Paris), just avenging his US Open loss to the Serbian and showing the world that he can still play with the younger guys might be satisfying enough.
"Obviously, the start to the match is important, but then again, we saw that it didn't matter at the US Open when we played each other; it didn't matter this time when we played; to del Potro it didn't matter," Federer said. "So that sometimes just keeps you honest to the very, very end, and I have to play as hard as I can every single point against him and see how it goes. If my level was one for all of my previous matches, I know that I have to reach a level of 10 to play against him. We'll see how fit he is. I know I have to play a great match."