PARIS — The French Open showdown between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic might lack some sizzle because they’re not playing in the final, but in the semifinals.
Still, the matchup is semi-terrific.
Seven-time champion Nadal vs. No. 1-ranked Djokovic carries the heft of a final, even if both players need two more victories to claim the championship. Nadal bids to become the first man to win eight titles at the same Grand Slam event, while Djokovic seeks the only major title he has yet to win for a career Grand Slam.
One of them will go away disappointed Friday, when they meet for the 35th time. Both are mindful of the match as only the means to an end.
“If you win, you didn’t win anything yet,” Nadal said. “It’s not the final; it’s the semifinals. You are not playing a match for a title. You are just playing a match to be in the final. So it’s a big difference.”
For partisan Parisians, Nadal-Djokovic might not even qualify as the main attraction. Popular Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is trying to become the first Frenchman in 30 years to win the Roland Garros title, and he’ll play Spaniard David Ferrer in the other semifinal.
All four semifinalists advanced in straight sets, the first time that has happened at the French Open since 1948. Nadal swept Stanislas Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1, and less than 10 minutes later, Djokovic closed out his victory over 35-year-old Tommy Haas, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 7-5.
Defending champion Maria Sharapova was scheduled to face two-time Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka in the women’s semifinals today, followed by No. 1 Serena Williams against 2012 runner-up Sara Errani.
Sharapova needed a comeback unlike any other in her career to reach the final four, rallying past Jelena Jankovic, 0-6, 6-4, 6-3. It was Sharapova’s first win after losing an opening set 6-0.
Azarenka reached her first Roland Garros semifinal by beating Maria Kirilenko 7-6 (3), 6-2.
Nadal’s ranking slipped during a seven-month layoff because of a knee injury, and as a result, he and Djokovic wound up in the same half of the draw. That’s why they’ll meet before the final at a major event for the first time since 2008.
Nadal leads Djokovic 19-15 but lost their most recent meeting in the Monte Carlo final on clay in April. Nadal has a 6-3 advantage in Grand Slam meetings, including 4-0 at the French Open, and he won when they met in last year’s final at Roland Garros.
He wasn’t hankering for a rematch.
“I would prefer an easier opponent,” Nadal said. “But it’s Novak, and I have to accept that it’s going to be a very tough match.”
Only moments after beating Haas, Djokovic was thinking — and talking — about Nadal.
“I’m ready to play five sets,” he told the crowd.
Facing the king of clay, Djokovic finds himself in the rare role of underdog, while Nadal bristled at the suggestion he’s the favorite.
“I don’t care at all,” he said through a translator. “Frankly, what words could I find to tell you? I mean, what else can I say? I don’t give a damn about it.
“I try and play my best tennis, and the least of my concerns is to know if I’m favored or not. These are words that will be carried away by the wind.”
Nadal’s 57-1 at Roland Garros, but he hardly looked like the man to beat early in the tournament. He fell behind in each of his first three matches, and groused that he might soon be back in his native Mallorca fishing.
But he has won 12 consecutive sets, and dropped serve only once in his two most recent wins. After steamrolling Wawrinka, Nadal said he’s much more optimistic about his chances than a week ago.
“I really am playing better here,” he said. “I’m happy with the way that I played today especially. It was my best match on the tournament without any doubt. I said I needed to make a change. I was confident that I can do it, and I did.”
Djokovic has cause for confidence, too. The six-time Grand Slam champion has reached the semifinals at 12 consecutive major tournaments, and he’s 33-4 this year.
Plus he has beaten Nadal more than any other player.
“I have a good game for him because my style is to be aggressive, but I can also defend well and have that transition game,” Djokovic said. “I’m going to be confident and step into the court with self-belief that I can win.”
Djokovic earned his latest victory by wearing down Haas, the oldest French Open men’s quarterfinalist since 1971. Djokovic kissed the line with a backhand winner on match point, and after the handshake ritual at the net, let out a scream and threw a roundhouse punch, ready for Rafa.