The first and third best players in tennis won their quarterfinals convincingly. However, if one goes by past records and the clay-court opponents they were facing, these wins qualified as major upsets. So what if Djokovic and Murray are both unbeaten on clay this year? So what if they’re coached by former players who took a while to get them into their groove? The fact is: Djokovic had to defeat Rafael Nadal to get into the semis, and Murray had to defeat Ferrer on clay—a feat he had never managed before. And now, here they are—against tradition, but within greatness. This will be their 27th meeting. Murray has never beaten Djokovic on clay. Djokovic has never beaten Murray on grass, but leads the head-to-head comfortably with 18-8, and 6-5 in tournament finals. But this is a semifinal, and in many minds—with no disrespect to Tsonga and Wawrinka—a virtual final.
The way Djokovic got past Nadal suggests that he is an overwhelming favourite to win his first ever French Open title. This is long overdue, after he has had to exit this tournament 6 times at the Spaniard’s hands. He has finally conquered Nadal, done the unthinkable, and everything that follows is supposed to be a cakewalk. Or so, he hopes. He ran Nadal ragged on center court, and Murray dominated Ferrer simultaneously to book a meeting with his long-time rival and journeyman. They grew up together playing each other at the junior level several times, with Murray being the dominant young player till they hit the pro circuit. In their 7 Grand Slam encounters, a rivalry of sorts, Djokovic has won five and lost two, the US Open Final (2012) and Wimbledon 2013. Their most recent encounter came in the Australian Open Final, where Djokovic once again prevailed in 4 sets. Murray has probably lost more Grand Slam finals than anyone on the tour right now, and has always been a long shot on clay. Three weeks before Paris, Murray had never won a clay court title. Then he won Hamburg and the Madrid Masters in quick succession. What piqued everyone’s interest was his victory over Nadal in the Madrid final.
Djokovic meanwhile has looked unstoppable. He overcame his own nerves to finally defeat Nadal in Paris—only Nadal’s second loss in 10 years at Roland Garros. Djokovic can only blame himself if he doesn’t win the next two matches. He is known to make short work of Murray, and is currently the best all-court player in tennis. The Brit stands little chance, and except for his purple patch in 2013, he has not quite returned to the mental level that saw him win the Olympic Gold, US Open and Wimbledon in a year. However, with coach Mauresmo finally bringing out the best in him, and making him a better slow-court player than he ever was—the final dimension in a game with little strengths and barely any weaknesses—Murray is a different player.
Their rivalry isn’t one for the ages. It never will be, thanks to their baseline styles and defensive play. But Djokovic has stepped it up at Paris, and has defined play without losing a set all tournament. It’s time for his ultimate test, the trickiest hold for a tennis player—serving it out after breaking against the run of play. He can’t be complacent. This is it.