In this, a golden era of tennis featuring the “Big Four” and Serena Williams, the final weekend at the French Open could be especially memorable.
Indeed it would be the ideal way — if you’re a fan of Williams and Novak Djokovic — to conclude a tournament where rain, roofs, injured players and schedules have taken up much of the discussion at the expense of forehands, backhands and the like.
Williams is a win away from matching Steffi Graf’s 22 grand slam titles in the Open Era and Djokovic needs one victory to become the eighth man to tally all four majors.
They’ve both been in that position before, Williams at the Australian Open in January and Djokovic on three occasions in Paris.
Williams defeated unseeded Kiki Bertens 7-6 (9-7) 6-4, while Djokovic got the better of another debut grand slam semifinalist, Dominic Thiem, 6-2 6-1 6-4, as the cool, gray weather persisted in the French capital.
Both world No. 1s go in as favorites against Garbine Muguruza and Andy Murray, who will try to play spoiler. They, too, though, would notch vital victories: Muguruza, who fell to Williams in the Wimbledon final last year, is bidding to win a first major in her blossoming career. The 22-year-old bettered 2010 French Open finalist Samantha Stosur 6-2 6-4.
How special it would be for second-seed Murray to win the French Open, on the red clay he struggled on several short years ago. Murray became the 10th man in the Open Era to make all four grand slam finals when he beat defending champion Stan Wawrinka 6-4 6-2 4-6 6-2 and is the first British man since 1937 to make a French Open final.
No, it wasn’t Fred Perry back then but Bunny Austin.
If Williams is to triumph Saturday, the American will have to overcome an adductor injury, which affects the hip and thigh.
When Williams showed up two hours late for her press conference after laboring in the quarterfinals against Yulia Putintseva, one suspected something was amiss. She denied it Thursday but admitted it Friday after television analysts broke the news.
“Yeah, I have had some issues, but you know, it is what it is,” she told reporters.
Williams can’t help but bring drama to the French Open. This year it’s happening late.
Twelve months ago — struck by illness — Williams looked close to making an exit in nearly all of her six matches prior to the final. Five of her seven encounters — including the final against Lucie Safarova — went the maximum three sets.
The first set against Bertens, in particular, proved to be great theater. A shame that Philippe Chatrier court was about one-fifth full — if not less — when the tussle started at 1 p.m. local time (1100 GMT). Suzanne Lenglen court, where Muguruza played Stosur, was also initially sparse despite tickets going for a bargain €20 ($22).
The incessant rain in Paris forced the women’s semifinals to be contested Friday instead of the usual Thursday. And rather than both men’s semfinals taking place on center court, Djokovic and Thiem were given a date on Lenglen following the women.
The unseeded Bertens, who missed out on becoming the first Dutch woman to reach a grand slam final since Betty Stove at Wimbledon in 1977, had her own health issues to contend with.
She needed a medical timeout for a left calf injury Thursday before downing 2015 semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky. Pre-match chatter hinted that a withdrawal on the biggest day of her career was a possibility.
But the 58th-ranked player in the world has withstood more threatening health scares in the past. In 2014, Bertens thought she had cancer after being diagnosed with a lump on her thyroid gland. Although she eventually tested negative, the 24-year-old endured sleepless nights for a year due to the anxiety and couldn’t train properly.
When Bertens faced Williams at the U.S. Open last August, she failed to take her chances in the opening set, leading to a predictable straight-set loss. It was a similar story that unfolded Friday.
With a lethargic Williams trailing 3-1, Bertens missed chances to earn a double-break advantage. A fleeting set point was squandered on the Williams serve at 5-3, with Bertens snatching at a forehand that crashed into the net.
Bertens — who was up 4-0 in their tiebreak at last year’s U.S. Open, only to blow her lead — might have thought it was time to repay the favor. From 5-2 down in the first-set tiebreak, Bertens rallied to 5-5.
Williams sent two poor volleys into the net to hand Bertens a 7-6 advantage, but again the forehand misfired. Williams closed out the tiebreak, and despite Bertens’ early 2-0 lead in the second set, one sensed this one was over.
On the other side of the draw, Muguruza became the first Spanish woman to make the final in Paris since her Fed Cup captain, Conchita Martinez, in 2000.
Another Spaniard has, of course, done fairly well in the men’s competition at Roland Garros over the past decade: Rafael Nadal. It remains to be seen whether some of the nine-time French Open winner’s magic will rub off on his compatriot Saturday.
Muguruza does know what it feels like to beat Williams in Paris, winning their duel at the French Open in 2014. And Williams has shown vulnerability in her last two majors, falling to Roberta Vinci and Angelique Kerber at the U.S. Open and Australian Open, respectively.
“I think that all of us want to win a grand slam irrespective of who the other player is,” Muguruza told reporters. “Of course if this player is a champion it’s even more enjoyable.”
Djokovic in great form
Thiem, the third man from Austria to play in a grand slam semifinal, owns the most wins on clay this year. His powerful, heavy shots pack a punch.
Djokovic, however, set the tone early. The best returner in tennis stretched his young rival to 32 points in Thiem’s first three service games. By that time, Thiem was behind a break.
Feeling he made an abundance of errors and lacked punch on his serve, Thiem nonetheless praised Djokovic.
“He doesn’t give you any presents,” Thiem, like Djokovic playing for a fourth straight day, said.
Saluting the crowd with the aid of a ball kid this fortnight, this time Djokovic enlisted the help of six of them.
Murray and Wawrinka promised to be a blockbuster but only delighted — for the neutral — in spurts. Murray saved three break points, all with attacking tennis, at 5-4 in the first to grab a crucial advantage.
He maintained the momentum until the third, when Wawrinka broke to end the set.
Wawrinka, a French speaker from Switzerland, implored the crowd to get further behind him and they obliged. Yet the extra emotion from the 31-year-old might have caused him more damage than good: He was broken to start the fourth and didn’t recover.
It was Murray’s first win over a top-four player at a grand slam since ousting Djokovic in the 2013 Wimbledon final. A significant hurdle was thus overcome.
The true test comes Sunday, though.
Djokovic leads 4-0 head-to-head in grand slams since 2013 and is 12-2 in their past 14 meetings overall. Murray did win their last match in Rome in May although even he acknowledged the normally resilient Djokovic was fatigued after draining victories against Nadal and Kei Nishikori.
“It’s another grand slam title up for grabs for both Andy and myself,” said Djokovic. “One thing that I know that I can expect when I get on the court with him is, it’s going to be a very physical battle. That’s why the day off will definitely serve me well.”