PARIS (Reuters) - The current best player in the world meets the greatest claycourt player of all time in a French Open blockbuster on Friday - but it is not even the final.
Unusually no silverware will be at stake when Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and Spaniard Rafa Nadal strut on to Philippe Chatrier court to face each other for the 35th time and whoever prevails will be favorite to lift the Musketeers’ Cup on Sunday.
Unless, of course, it turns into the kind of last-man-standing tennis trench warfare that is so often the case between them and there is nothing left in the armory for a final against Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Spaniard David Ferrer.
Sixth seed Tsonga, who clinically dispatched Roger Federer in straight sets in the quarter-finals faces his day of reckoning as he attempts to become the first Frenchman to reach the singles final at Roland Garros since Henri Leconte in 1988.
Fourth seed Ferrer is a nuggety opponent yet to drop a set here so far and the 31-year-old will relish the role of party-pooper as he seeks to reach a first grand slam final.
Friday will be the first time Djokovic and Nadal have met before the final of a tournament, other than the ATP World Tour finals round robin stage, since 2009.
In the last 11 meetings, five of which have been in grand slam finals, everything has been on the line.
The most remarkable of those battles was the 2012 Australian Open final where Djokovic and Nadal fought each other to a standstill before the Serb prevailed in a five hour 53 minute epic that took grand slam finals into unchartered territory.
That was Djokovic’s seventh successive victory over Nadal and it seemed he had cracked the hardest nut in tennis but since then the 27-year-old Mallorcan has responded with three wins from the last four and leads their overall series 19-15.
Despite Friday’s clash falling a round early than most neutrals would like, Djokovic said the mindset of both players would not change in the slightest.
“I’m ready for five sets,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there is going to be five sets. We’ll see what’s gonna be.
“Nobody can predict what’s going to happen, especially in our matches.”
When Nadal beat Djokovic to win a record seventh French Open title last year, little did anyone know that a few weeks later at Wimbledon the Spaniard would be stunned by Czech Lukas Rosol in the second round and then spend seven months out injured.
Since returning in February, however, Nadal has been dominant again on clay, winning five titles on the surface, albeit losing to Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final.
“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,” Djokovic said.
“But, again, it’s the best of five, so it takes much more than just doing the same thing like in Monte‑Carlo. It’s a grand slam so there is more tension. The final is at stake.”
Nadal looked out of sorts for the first week of the tournament but has been transformed in the last two rounds, thrashing Kei Nishikori and Stanislas Wawrinka.
“Is strange,” he said of meeting Djokovic in the semis.
“But I am more calm today that I am competing for much more important things than one week ago. Then I was competing just for the second round.
“I’m gonna be nervous for the semi-finals probably. If not, I better go home and do another thing. If you are not nervous to play the semi-finals against the best player of the world, it’s because you are not enjoying or you don’t feel the passion.”
There has been plenty of passion whipped up by Tsonga who is flying the flag for France with the kind of gung-ho tennis that on its day is capable of overwhelming anyone - even Federer.
Tsonga promised the same approach in the semi-finals.
“Once you back down in a rally, he never lets you free,” Tsonga said of Ferrer, who he trails 2-1 in career meetings.
“He fights. He never gives up. He runs a lot. He’s extremely fast. He has a lot of endurance.
“But I feel I’m able to beat him because I believe I have the weapons for that. I hit harder than he does.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar