So far, so good for Novak Djokovic


PARIS -- Novak Djokovic punched the clock for better than two hours Tuesday, but he has absolutely frolicked his way so far through this French Open.

He has lost only one of the 16 sets he has played, and he is the favorite of bookmakers, who give him an even shot against the field to come away with his first title at Roland Garros.

The elephant in the room? That would be No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who has won 63 of his 64 matches at the venerable French venue. It was Rafa's 28th birthday Tuesday, which underlined his perceived vulnerability after a relatively so-so spring on the European clay.

Djokovic has beaten Nadal the past four times they have played, including a muscular straight-sets victory a few weeks ago in Rome. The fact that the always candid Rafa has been complaining of a bad back heightens the feeling that he can be beaten here. The final is scheduled for Sunday (there is rain in the forecast), and most people will be quite surprised if Nadal and Djokovic aren't in it.

The 27-year-old Serb was the first one to advance to the semifinals with a steely 7-5, 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory over No. 8 seed Milos Raonic.

Unlike the women's draw, the men's brackets have gone pretty much according to form. Six of the top eight seeds made the quarterfinals, with only the Swiss pair of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka dropping the ball, as it were.

Djokovic will meet No. 18 Ernests Gulbis, a surprisingly easy 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 winner over No. 6 Tomas Berdych, in a Friday semifinal. Wednesday's quarterfinals on the top side of the draw feature No. 1 Nadal versus No. 5 David Ferrer and No. 7 Andy Murray against No. 23 Gael Monfils.

"I try to focus the intention only on the next match, so I don't think about eventual final," Djokovic said. "I think about only Gulbis. He's been playing really well. He's confident. But again, I like my chances because I have had now couple of great weeks on the clay courts from Rome to now last 10 days here in Roland Garros. Two days off will definitely serve well now to recover, to work on some things on the practice courts, and then come back strong and prepare for the next challenge."

It's the first major semifinal for Gulbis, a 25-year-old Latvian, after defeating Federer in a five-set fourth-round match -- the match of his life. Perhaps even more impressive? Gulbis managed to avoid the Federer jinx; the last eight players to beat Federer in a Slam lost in the next round. Gulbis, a supremely talented player who has been considered an underachiever, has won nine straight matches.

"I need to celebrate," Gulbis told the crowd at Court Suzanne Lenglen. "That felt good."

A few hours after fellow Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, only 20 years old, advanced to the women's semifinals, Raonic was trying to become first Canadian man to reach the semifinals here. He also was attempting to become first Canadian man to reach any Grand Slam semifinal since William Johnston at the 1923 U.S. Championships. At 23, Raonic is two years younger than any of the seven other quarterfinalists.

The two had played only twice previously, both going to Djokovic, but those six sets produced three tiebreakers. Djokovic won two of them, but the all-or-nothing framework of the extra session tends to favor the bigger server. The thing that makes this matchup so appealing is that Raonic has one of the best serves in the business. Djokovic, meanwhile, is the best returner of serve among ATP World Tour players. The difference in their average first serves Tuesday was 15 mph.

When Djokovic was threatening to carry off the first set with Raonic serving at 4-5, the Canadian really hit some bombs -- one of them an ace that traveled 140 mph.

"It's never smooth against Milos or against any server of his caliber," Djokovic said. "There is few guys that are serving this well. Next to him is probably John Isner and [Ivo] Karlovic. Those three guys have immense serves that have great power and great precision."

At 5-6, Djokovic managed to convert. After a lunging forehand service return, he stroked a short backhand right at the advancing Raonic's feet. The half volley was too big an ask; it did not come close to landing safely, and Djokovic exulted in the direction of his box, which includes six-time Grand Slam singles champion Boris Becker.

In the second set, it was Djokovic who served notice, hitting an unreturnable serve at 6-5 in the tiebreaker, one with an impossibly sharp angle that jumped off the court.

After an uncharacteristic break of serve near the end of the final set, Djokovic closed it out.

Afterward, he smiled and flashed a thumbs-up to the crowd. There was no emphatic celebration; there is more work to be done.

And it starts with Gulbis.

"You can see the last 12 months with his results, he's now, what, top 15, 20 in the world," Djokovic said. "After this tournament, even better. He has won against Roger, won against Tomas. I saw the match against Roger. He plays really well. I mean, he has a huge serve that, you know, if it goes in, you know, it can give him a lot of advantage over the opponent."