Can anything stop Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the French Open men’s semifinals?

    Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for over 35 years, mostly recently for ESPN. He is a former WTA Writer of the Year and the author of numerous books, including the classic “The Courts of Babylon” and the New York Times bestseller (with Pete Sampras), “A Champion’s Mind.”

Only two individuals stand in the way of a historic French Open clash between top seed Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Rafael Nadal, who is on a quest to equal Roger Federer’s all-time Grand Slam singles title record for men at 20. While neither Stefanos Tsitsipas nor Diego Schwartzman has played a major final, neither man is a surprise semifinalist, either.

We asked some of our top analysts — Patrick McEnroe, Brad Gilbert and Jason Goodall — to answer a few questions on the semis. They are joined by Craig O’Shannessy, the strategy analyst for the ATP Tour, Wimbledon and the Italian Tennis Federation.

No. 2 Nadal vs. No. 14 Schwartzman

What strengths and tactics could Schwartzman bring to create a sensational upset?

Brad Gilbert: Schwartzman doesn’t play like he’s 5-foot-7, the way he takes time away from an opponent. He takes the ball earlier than most, with compact swings, so the ball is on you quickly — even on a slow court. It’s astonishing to watch. It’s beautiful. His success just goes to show you could be big or little, but if you get court position and take time away from an opponent you have a lot to work with.

Patrick McEnroe: Schwartzman is an excellent returner (he ranks right behind Djokovic and Nadal in the ATP return stats), but he isn’t successful because he’s stepping in and hitting big returns any more than Rafa is successful holding because he’s hitting a lot of aces. Diego has a lot of variety on his return and may be able to find Rafa’s backhand and avoid having to go on the run off Rafa’s second shot.

Jason Goodall: Diego Schwartzman has a world-class backhand. Historically, Nadal taunts right-handed opponents on clay with his high-bouncing forehand. Schwartzman needs to take advantage of these slow, damp conditions that yield a low bounce to take the backhand at a normal height early, and when Nadal drops a ball short Diego has to change the direction of the rally.

Craig O’Shannessy: Nadal is at his most lethal when he can hit the inside-out forehand, so Schwartzman needs to get into exchanges where his forehand goes to Nadal’s backhand. The place to attack Nadal is out wide to his forehand. Nadal does such a good job of running around his backhand that wide to the forehand can be a weak spot — if you can find it.

What can Nadal do to overcome Schwartzman’s terrific defense?

McEnroe: You have to be unbelievably fit to weather Nadal’s physical onslaught over a long period. Rafa’s forehand is still the biggest shot on court. Even though Diego can take the ball earlier than most, if they’re going cross court in rallies or forehand to forehand, Rafa has greater weight of shot. He’s going to try to wear down Schwartzman, who can maybe hang with him for a couple of sets, like he did in Rome, but this is best-of-five.

Gilbert: I expect Rafa to have a little more pop on his shots and to make adjustments in his court position. He needs to be more adventurous on his serve and to try to break down Diego’s forehand because that backhand is phenomenal. Nadal should beat up on some second serves. If Diego is winning 60% of his second points, Nadal could be in trouble.

O’Shannessy: I like the idea of playing Schwartzman right down the middle of the court at the beginning of the rally. He plays very well out of the corners so don’t immediately provide these angles for him. Then once Schwartzman tries to go to Nadal’s backhand, he won’t have a lot of angle to work with to get it wide, so Nadal can dine on his big weapon — his run-around forehand.

Goodall: Nadal tries to dictate play and dominate points, forcing opponents into errors or forcing them to take too many undue risks in order to try to beat him. That didn’t pan out for him in Rome, but Rafa has to trust in his ability over five sets. Schwartzman’s energy reserves are more depleted than his own. Nadal has to stick to his game plan and challenge Schwartzman to play defense for over five hours.

The ambient conditions supposedly worked more against Nadal than any other contender, but he hasn’t lost a set. Is it still a valid theory?

Goodall: Sure, Nadal’s game is more effective on warm, dry, sunny days. However, that’s like saying that Usain Bolt preferred racing in the sun on a nice dry track rather than in the rain. Either way, Bolt would still be favored to win. Same for Nadal in Paris.

O’Shannessy: Nadal’s weapons of height, massive spin and jump off the court have been dulled by the cold weather. Jannik Sinner was Nadal’s toughest test, so those are the most significant match metrics. Nadal lost the extended rallies of nine-plus shots (28 to 22) through the first two sets against Sinner, suggesting Schwartzman may be able to do the same in longer rallies.

McEnroe: The issue may be less relevant than in the past. Rafa is more adaptable now. He has gotten better on faster courts, which has helped him on clay. He can take the ball early, play closer to the baseline, and he also comes in more and cuts off the court more often. He just doesn’t rely on the same old relentless grinding. But he’s still the greatest clay-court player of all time.

Gilbert: Rafa will have to play closer to the baseline, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he has that in his back pocket. But also there was a great quote from him before the tournament started. After talking about the heavy balls, wet conditions, all that negative stuff, he said, “Situation is special. Conditions here probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros for so many different facts. But you know what, I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.” He’s done that.

No. 1 Djokovic vs. No 6 Tsitsipas

Tsitsipas steamrolled Andrey Rublev in the quarters. Can he muster enough offense to break down Djokovic’s vaunted defense?

McEnroe: Stefanos has enough athleticism and variation in his game to give Djokovic trouble. He has taken all the right steps to reach the next level. He came into the French Open off two very tough losses in the US Open and in the Hamburg final. Some young guys would have gone into a tailspin after both of those losses, but he didn’t. He looks determined. I would be less surprised if Djokovic lost than if Nadal did.

Gilbert: Tsitsipas’s backhand and serve-return strokes need a lot of time. This court is giving it to him, with the ball coming through relatively low and slow. That’s giving Stefanos time to take a full swing. As a result, his shots have had more bounce and spin than those of anyone else. Who would have guessed that in a weird way the guys getting the most help from the conditions are Tsitsipas and Schwartzman?

O’Shannessy: Tsitsipas must play an offensive match against Djokovic to stand a chance. Novak will be rock solid out of the backhand corner, so taking backhands down the line to get out of Ad court exchanges will be key for Tsitsipas. Tsitsipas needs his forehand to be a most venomous shot, and he has to attack Djokovic out wide in the deuce court with running forehands.

Goodall: Maybe Tsitsipas could pull it off on another surface and in different conditions, but not in Paris if Djokovic isn’t injured. Djokovic defends aggressively better than any other player in the history of the game.

Djokovic is undefeated in completed matches this year. What are his areas of potential vulnerability or weakness?

McEnroe: It’s hard to see anything. But Novak does go through these periods when he looks totally out of it. I don’t know if it’s real, or just in his head. There are also the minor injuries he seems prey to. But Tsitsipas can’t even look at that. He has to focus on playing an unbelievable, all-court match. He has beaten all the top guys, so he’s not intimidated by Novak.

Goodall: Djokovic has no weaknesses in his game. What’s the game plan against him? Even Nadal and Federer struggle. One option is to serve him off the court, which Tsitsipas can’t do given the conditions. Tsistipas will need to red-line his game and play faultless all-court tennis in order to give himself a fighting chance. It’s a loooooong shot.

Gilbert: Djokovic has hit more drop shots in this tournament than ever before. That’s the only thing that has given some guys a reprieve because he’s missing some and trying droppers on big points. Tsitsipas moves tremendously well, so if Novak tries to drop shot him too much he could be in trouble.

O’Shannessy: Djokovic is showing almost no areas of vulnerability. He’s controlling baseline exchanges as well as ever. Tsitsipas should attack early in the points and make it more of a first-strike match, with rallies of 0-4 shots rather than trying to break Novak down in longer rallies.

If this match goes into a long four or five sets, which will count for more, Tsitispas’s youth and legs or Djokovic’s physical state (arm/neck injury) and experience?

Gilbert: Djokovic is 33, but really he seems more like 23. However, the cold conditions make it tricky for everyone, especially for someone with a niggling injury. It’s going to be tricky weather. It would help Djokovic if the roof were closed.

McEnroe: I don’t believe Tsitsipas will tire, he’s in great shape. But even if it’s 3-all in the fifth, I will still give Djokovic the edge because he’s shown how much more he has in the tank than most guys. It’s not like Novak is 38 or 39. He’s 33. Neither he nor Nadal is at the point where they may run out of steam. Even when he looks tired, Novak is going to find some gas.

Goodall: Tsitsipas seems to have the mental prowess required when taking on the very best players in the world. He believes in himself. He’s a great athlete, so fitness shouldn’t be an issue. But if it goes long, Djokovic has the edge with his additional experience at this level in these types of matches.

O’Shannessy: Tsitsipas won’t blow Djokovic off the court, and longer the match goes it’s still an advantage for Djokovic. Experience matters greatly in a Grand Slam semifinal. But if Tsitsipas stays close, good things can happen.

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