For Djokovic, Playing Nadal on Clay is His ‘Biggest’ Task

Novak Djokovic, No. 1 in tennis and seeking a first French Open title, calls tomorrow’s semifinal against Rafael Nadal his greatest challenge. Having won a record seven times in Paris, the defending champion just shrugs.

“It is not the finals, it’s the semifinals,” Nadal said. “If you win, you didn’t win nothing yet. That’s a big difference.”

Both Djokovic of Serbia and Nadal, the No. 3 seed from Spain, reached the final four in straight sets yesterday in Paris. They will meet for a shot at the championship of Roland Garros, where Nadal has lost one match in nine years.

The women’s semifinals are today. Defending champion Maria Sharapova of Russia plays Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka of Belarus before top-seeded Serena Williams of the U.S. plays last year’s runner-up, Sara Errani of Italy. The women’s final is on June 8, with the men’s final the following day.

Djokovic is 15-19 against Nadal and never has beaten him at the French Open. Nadal defeated him in a close four-set final last year, a rain-delayed result that Djokovic said affected him for months.

“Now I have a big challenge in front of me, and I’m ready for it,” the top-ranked player on the ATP World Tour said at a news conference yesterday. “This is the biggest matchup of our Roland Garros 2013 campaign for both me and him. It’s the small details and a few points can decide a winner, and that’s why I need to be very disciplined and focused in order to get emotionally, physically and mentally ready for that match.”

Djokovic Wins

Djokovic, 26, reached the semifinals by defeating 35-year-old Tommy Haas of Germany, the oldest man in the French quarterfinals in more than four decades, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), 7-5.

Nadal, 27, advanced with a 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 victory against ninth-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland. It was the third consecutive straight-set victory for the Spaniard, who dropped the opening set in each of his first two rounds. The only time in eight previous appearances in Paris that Nadal hasn’t won the tournament was 2009, when he lost to Robin Soderling in the fourth round.

Djokovic, with six Grand Slam titles, had been so wary of Nadal that he asked a French Open official to tell reporters not to talk about the draw before the start of his pre-tournament news conference.

Fateful Draw

The two men had been drawn in the same half, with 17-time major champion Roger Federer of Switzerland in the opposite part. Federer, seeded second, was knocked out of the French Open in the quarterfinals by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets. The Frenchman plays David Ferrer, the No. 4 seed from Spain, in the other semifinal tomorrow.

Although his run of eight straight titles on the clay courts of the Monte Carlo Masters was ended by Djokovic in the final in April, playing on the same surface at Roland Garros is another matter, Nadal said.

“This court, and the feeling to play this court, is always a little bit different,” Nadal said. “And in any case, the past is the past.”

The victory in Monte Carlo has given Djokovic confidence he may end his losing streak to Nadal at Roland Garros, even though their match will be played in a best-of-five format instead of best-of-three sets on the ATP World Tour.

‘Mental Edge’

“That is something that can maybe give me that mental edge when I step onto the court, knowing I already won against him on clay this season, knowing I can do it, even though not many players in last 10 years have won against him on this surface and he’s been the most dominant player in the history of this sport on this surface,” Djokovic said. “It’s incredible what he does on this surface.”

Sharapova kept her championship defense alive by doing something she hadn’t done before at the top level of tennis -- win a match after dropping the opening set at love.

The second seed this year, Sharapova beat 18th-seeded Jelena Jankovic of Serbia, 0-6, 6-4, 6-3. The Russian title-holder made 20 unforced errors in the first set before raising her record at the Grand Slam and WTA tour level to 1-5 in matches she began on the wrong end of a shutout.

“I do find it meaningful when I have to dig deep in order to find the bonuses out of the match,” Sharapova told reporters.

Azarenka defeated No. 12 seed Maria Kirilenko of Russia 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 yesterday. She holds a 7-5 career record against Sharapova.

“Always a tough match,” Sharapova said. “We have played each other so many times, there are really no secrets between each other in terms of our game styles and what we do well and not.”

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