French Open: Reasons why Roger Federer can shock Rafael Nadal in semi-finals

Roland Garros the venue for the 39th meeting between these two rivals as Federer aims for sixth time lucky against Nadal in Paris

Friday’s meeting in the French Open semi-finals will be the first time since October 2017 that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have faced each other.

Federer won that encounter in the Shanghai Masters final. It was the first time he had beaten Nadal four times in a row.

When asked post-match how he had found an edge over the man who leads their career rivalry 23-15, Federer said: “I’ve not played so much on clay - that’s helped me not lose there!”

Unfortunately for Federer, clay is the surface he will face Nadal on for their 39th career meeting. He is 2-12 against Nadal on clay and has lost all five of their matches at Roland Garros.

So it does not look good for Federer, but there are reasons why the 20-time major winner should not be discounted from making it sixth time lucky on Friday.

Performing strongly

Considering he has not played at the French Open since 2015, Federer’s level has been high. He was injured in 2016 and then chose to sit out the entire clay season in 2017 and 2018 to allow himself to rest ahead of Wimbledon.

He returned to the red surface in Madrid last month and showed he could contend by beating Gael Monfils and losing a thriller to Dominic Thiem.

Federer was relatively untroubled in the first four rounds in Paris and then played some superb tennis to see off in-form compatriot Stan Wawrinka in the quarters.

Wawrinka was superb, hitting the ball with real power at times, but Federer hung with his younger rival and prevailed. The 37 year old has his eye in and he is well set for the challenge of Nadal.

Nothing to lose

Federer is rarely an underdog but he is here, the statistics of past meetings on clay tell the story. But the desperate losses between 2005-2008 were driven by a desire to complete his career grand slam.

The look of despair as he sat slouched in his chair after his 2008 hammering, in which he won only four games, was the sign of a man fearing he would never reach the peak he desired.

That did happen 12 months later in 2009, though it took someone else in the shape of Robin Soderling, to clear the way for him. But when they met in the 2011 final it was a visibly more relaxed Federer playing simply for the title and not for his legacy.

He should have won that year. He bossed the first set before throwing it away and allowing Nadal to build momentum.

Federer is aiming to win a 21st major this weekend. That is a goal, but he knows there will be other, possibly better, chances to do that.

Becoming only the third man after Soderling and Novak Djokovic to beat Nadal in Paris would be an accomplishment, but it will be not the end of the world if the Spaniard again denies him.

This is a free hit for Federer. If he wins, brilliant; if not, there is always Wimbledon.

Nadal’s form

Since 2005, we are so used to Nadal sweeping all before him on clay that any deviation from that sends alarm bells ringing.

By his high standards he had a below par build up to the French Open. He only won one title, in Rome, and Fabio Fognini, Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas all beat him.

He certainly looked fallible and it is fair to say Federer is his first real test of the tournament. No 27 seed David Goffin troubled him in the third round and took a set off him. He trounced Kei Nishikori in the last eight, but clay has never been the Japanese player’s strongest suit and he was visibly exhausted after successive five-setters.

Nadal has had unconvincing build-ups to French Opens before and still gone on to lift the trophy. But he has only shown glimpses of his brilliant best so far in Paris.

Maybe he hasn’t had to, but Federer’s win over Wawrinka is the most impressive display either semi-finalist has produced so far.

If Federer can start well on Friday it will be fascinating to see if Nadal can once again find an answer, of if this is finally his great rival’s time to get one over on him at Roland Garros.

Check out the history of Federer v Nadal at grand slams in the gallery above. All 12 matches are rated to decide which one was the most memorable, ahead of Friday's action.

Updated: June 7, 2019 12:16 PM

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