Six down, one to go. That’s the status of Novak Djokovic’s quest to win at Roland Garros to complete his Grand Slam set, one of the biggest storylines coming into this year’s tournament and a mission gathering momentum with every impressive performance he has delivered over the past fortnight in Paris.
The latest was Friday’s workmanlike 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 dismissal of surprise semi-finalist Ernests Gulbis, played in the hottest and driest conditions of the event so far and sending Djokovic into his second Roland Garros final in the past three years.
On Sunday, he will have a chance to become just the eighth man ever to achieve a career Grand Slam.
"It requires a little bit of an adjustment, because we played for over 10 days of the tournament in overcast and a little bit heavier conditions. The ball wasn't bouncing as high as it did today ... so you had to adjust to that," Djokovic analysed. "And of course it was strong sun. That also affects the fatigue of the players. It was a lot of exchanges we had, a lot of long rallies. But at the end of the day, in the end of the match I managed to find a necessary rhythm."
Djokovic and Gulbis looked somewhat unsettled in the windy conditions on Philippe Chatrier Court. Both found themselves pressurised on service early, each forced to recover from 0-30 down in the second and third games respectively. After playing a delicate winner up the line off a drop shot, Gulbis even scored a 15-40 lead in the fourth game before a sequence of errors helped the Serb hold for 2-2.
Gulbis certainly held his own in rallies, his heavy groundstrokes – particularly off the forehand wing – proving potent. But he simply could not match the steadiness of Djokovic, who moved better, worked the ball around the court more effectively, returned accurately and generally struck the ball more crisply. In the ninth game, the second seed lasered a trademark, sliding backhand at full stretch down the line, drawing an error to secure the first set.
The Latvian showed some nous to break up the patterns of play with delicate touch. With games on service early in the second, he made the first real move towards a break by coming out on top of a sharply-angled forehand exchange before forcing Djokovic into error thanks to a well-disguised drop shot. He led 0-30, only to drop four straight points.
This trend persisted as the set progressed. Gulbis would show flashes of form and inspiration and look suddenly dangerous, but Djokovic was always able to rely on an error to remain ahead. The Serb broke to lead 5-3, and despite a struggle at deuce when serving out the set in the next game, another mistake from Gulbis made it two-sets-to-love in Djokovic’s favour.
Djokovic was certainly not allowed to coast to a straight-sets victory. He was facing an opponent who had impressively upset Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych in back-to-back matches, and Gulbis reminded the Chatrier crowd how he had been able to pull off such a feat. He lifted, cutting out his errors and forcing Djokovic to work extremely hard on service. The men staged an epic battle in the sixth game, with Djokovic having to endure five deuces and two break points before holding. Gulbis was undeterred by this missed opportunity. Timing his backhand perfectly, he unleashed several winners from this wing to break for a 5-3 lead, and when serving for the set, produced another backhand winner – sandwiched between aces – to send the match intro a fourth.
Shortly thereafter, Gulbis began grabbing at his left lower back and promptly dropped service to fall behind 2-0. Djokovic, already irritated that the match had slipped somewhat out of his control, became furious when he handed the break straight back in the next game, shattering his racquet on the clay and igniting boos and whistles from the crowd.
But the second seed has been a confident, assured player of late, and he soon returned to that headspace. He broke the deadlock of service holds in the eighth game with steady play that ultimately drew a succession of backhand errors from Gulbis, and forcefully served out the match to love in the following game.