There’s not a fat lot of evidence to suggest that Roger Federer will beat Rafael Nadal in the French Open semi-final. Yes, one may argue that the Swiss have won their last five meetings but in their 15 previous encounters on clay, Federer has only won twice.
Five of their clay-court battles have come at Roland Garros. Federer has not won any of them. Indeed, only two players have been able to triumph over the ‘King of Clay’ on his favourite court: Robin Soderling and Novak Djokovic.
Their last contest on the dirt came in Rome in 2013, where 33-year-old Nadal wiped the floor with his great rival in the final, but the most recent encounter here, in 2011 final, was a much closer four-set affair.
Federer’s best winning streak against his rival has coincided with his avoidance of competing on the crushed brick.
Nadal grinned when asked about the 37-year-old skipping the 2018 clay-court swing in Monte Carlo a year ago: ‘He says he will love to play against me again in best-of-five sets on clay.
‘He said that a couple of days ago – and I thought he would play Roland Garros. Then a few days later he says he will not play in one event, so there’s a little bit of controversy with that.’ Federer, a champion in these parts in 2009, will no doubt take confidence from his recent winning record but knows that Nadal on clay is an entirely different beast. That said, the third seed insists their match is no foregone conclusion. ‘Like against any player, there is always a chance,’ Federer said after beating Stan Wawrinka in the quarter-finals.
‘Otherwise nobody will be in the stadium to watch because everybody already knows the result in advance. And I think sport does that to you, that every match needs to be played before it’s decided. ‘And that’s exactly what everybody believes by facing Rafa. They know it’s going to be tough. But you just never know. He might have a problem. He might be sick. You never know.
‘You might be playing great or for some reason he’s struggling. Maybe there’s incredible wind, rain, 10 rain delays. You just don’t know. That’s why you need to put yourself in that position. ‘For me to get to Rafa is not simple. It took five matches here for me to win to get there. That’s why I’m very happy to play Rafa, because if you want to do or achieve something on the clay, inevitably, at some stage, you will go through Rafa, because he’s that strong and he will be there. ‘I knew that when I signed up for the clay that hopefully that’s gonna happen. If I would have had a different mindset to avoid him, then I should not have played the clay. So I think by that mindset, I think it helped me to play so well so far this tournament.’
Eleven-time champion Nadal, meanwhile, believes their match-up is continually evolving.
‘There is no two matches the same,’ Nadal said after thumping Kei Nishikori. ‘All the matches are different, because we always try things. Let’s see. Let’s see what’s going on.
‘I really expect that he gonna play aggressive, changing rhythms, going to the net. That’s my feeling, that he gonna try to play that way, because he’s playing well and he has the tennis to make that happen. ‘I have to be solid. I have to hit the ball enough strong to don’t allow him to do the things from good positions. I need to let him play from difficult positions, so from there he gonna have less chances to go to the net or to play his aggressive game.
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‘So at the end of the day is play well. If I am able to play good tennis and play well with my forehand and backhand, I hope to put him in trouble. If not, I will be in trouble.’