PARIS — Andy Murray had played Rafael Nadal 19 times in his career when he stepped onto Court Philippe Chatrier for their French Open semifinal. But from the first point, Murray realized he was facing a different beast altogether.
The hot sun and arid conditions only accentuated the wicked spin and wild bounce of Nadal’s shots. And at Roland Garros, where Nadal has won eight of the last nine French Open titles, he exudes a particular air of invincibility.
The endless opening rally ended on a blistering backhand winner by Nadal down the line. And the Spaniard raised his level of play from there, storming into a ninth French Open final with his most convincing victory of the clay-court season, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1.
With Novak Djokovic advancing earlier, Sunday’s championship will pit the world’s No. 1 player against No. 2: Nadal, seeking a ninth French Open title, and Djokovic, desperately seeking a first to complete the career Grand Slam that attests to a champion’s supremacy on hard court, grass and clay.
Just 11 months apart in age, Nadal and Djokovic represent the greatest rivalry in tennis right now, each at the peak of his powers. Nadal holds a 22-19 edge entering their 42nd meeting, but Djokovic has won the last four, including Rome’s clay-court final last month. Nadal, however, has won all five meetings at the French Open, including the 2012 final and last year’s five-set semifinal.
“At the moment, he is in a good momentum,” Nadal said of Djokovic, calling theirs a beautiful sporting rivalry. “I hope I can put an end to that. I’m working on this.”
There was reason to believe that all was not right with Nadal when the French Open got underway May 25. In four clay-court tuneups, he had reached the final of just two and won only one. Most pros would be thrilled with comparable results; to Nadal, three clay-court losses in a season is cause for alarm.
He reviewed the litany of concerns after handing Murray the most lopsided defeat in their eight years of clashes: uncharacteristic unforced errors, poor court positioning, an inability to dictate with his forehand and, as a result, bouts of nerves and anxiety.
Though he fell to Djokovic in Rome just last month, Nadal cited the match as a turning point.
“It’s all a matter of evolution,” said Nadal, 28, known for his arduous practices and tenacity in addressing weaknesses in his game.
Through five rounds of play, Nadal had lost only one set entering Friday’s semifinal. And though his record at Roland Garros was 64-1, he was on the practice court at noon, four hours before his semifinal, drilling his groundstrokes in methodical order — backhands down the line, backhands cross court, forehands down the line, forehands crosscourt — and aiming not for a quadrant of the court but specific spots inches from the line.
That was the sort of precision, slathered with monstrous spin and pace, that Murray, the reigning Wimbledon champion, found himself up against Friday afternoon.
Known as a clean ball-striker, Murray mis-hit Nadal’s blasts repeatedly. Regarded as one of the game’s better returners, he could barely get the ball in play, with Nadal jamming him up with serves to the body.
“If you don’t do anything with the return, he was just battering the next ball into the corner,” said Murray, who never managed a break point against Nadal.
Murray tried being more aggressive; he would charge the net but get passed cleanly. He tried being more patient; he slogged away from well behind the baseline only to get yanked so far off court that he couldn’t defend. That’s how the match ended, one hour 40 minutes after it started, on an overhead smash into an empty court, with Murray hopelessly out of position.
The day’s first semifinal pitted two of the sport’s more intriguing characters: Djokovic, an exceptional defender with no lack of offensive weapons, and 17th-seeded Ernests Gulbis of Latvia, long regarded as having more talent than discipline.
Gulbis, 25, son of an actress and wealthy Latvian businessman, has professed a deeper dedication to the sport of late. And he knocked off two top-10 players in succession — 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych — to reach the semifinals of a major for the first time in his career.
But nerves got the better of him against Djokovic, who parlayed early service breaks to take a two-sets-to-none lead without exerting himself excessively during a 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 triumph.
Djokovic’s play lapsed in the third set, as did his composure. Borrowing a page from Gulbis’s playbook, the Serb broke his racket in frustration then played a sloppy service game to lose the set.
After regrouping to close the match in four sets, Djokovic turned his attention at once to Nadal.
“I’m going to try to be aggressive because that is the only way I can win against him,” Djokovic said. “I know that, of course, this is the court he’s most dominant on.
“He has only lost one time in his career. This is where he plays his best.”