A year ago in the French Open semifinals, Roger Federer put a stop to Novak Djokovic's 43-match winning streak.
That also was the last time Djokovic lost at any Grand Slam tournament.
When the two men meet at the same stage at Roland Garros on Friday, 16-time major champion Federer once again stands in Djokovic's way, with even more at stake. This time, Djokovic will be seeking a 27th consecutive major match victory, which would leave him one shy of becoming the first man in 43 years to win four Grand Slam titles in a row.
"I will try to be out there believing I can win," said the No. 1-ranked Djokovic, who won Wimbledon in July, the U.S. Open in September, and the Australian Open in January. "There is no (real) favorite."
The other semifinal Friday features someone else pursuing history: No. 2 Rafael Nadal, who faces No. 6 David Ferrer, is hoping to earn a record seventh French Open trophy, which would break a tie with Bjorn Borg.
Nadal is 50-1 at Roland Garros, the only loss coming in the fourth round in 2009 against Robin Soderling.
"How discouraging is it to play Nadal on this surface? ... When Borg played, in my day, he was like the human backboard. He was faster than everyone, fitter than everyone, and you couldn't get a ball by the guy," said seven-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe, whose rivalry with Borg is among the best. "I saw guys get exhausted in the first set. ... It's like the same thing when you play Nadal."
Nadal has won all 15 sets he's played in Paris this year.
He's won 60 of his 61 service games, saving 16 of 17 break points.
None of the same sort of drama that Djokovic and Federer created during their progression to the semifinals — both needed to come back from two-set deficits — and have managed to produce in their past two Grand Slam matches against each other.
In 2011 at the French Open, Djokovic was unbeaten, and looking rather unbeatable, until a four-set thriller against Federer, whose 18th ace ended their semifinal as dusk was descending. If a fifth set had been necessary, they would have returned the next day to finish things.
Three months later, in the U.S. Open semifinals, Djokovic erased a two-set deficit and two match points, the first with a wildly risky forehand return winner that barely caught the line and drew a bit of a rebuke from Federer afterward.
"I never played that way," Federer said that day. "I believe in the hard-work's-going-to-pay-off kind of thing, because early on, maybe I didn't always work at my hardest. So for me, this is very hard to understand how can you play a shot like that on match point. But, look, maybe he's been doing it for 20 years, so for him it was very normal. You've got to ask him."
Djokovic fought off another match point, as well, and with the crowd suddenly on his side, took the last four games. Afterward, Djokovic said he thought the match was lost and conceded that he couldn't really explain that first match point.
Fast-forward to his French Open quarterfinal this week, and Djokovic pulled off the same sort of escape, saving four match points en route to getting past No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France.
If Djokovic goes on to win the French Open — joining Don Budge in 1938, and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969 as winners of four major titles in succession — those six match points certainly will stand out.
"When you make shots like that, and you win matches like that, you sort of go down in, like, the folklore, in the history books. It puts you at a level where suddenly you could be talked about as like one of the greatest players that ever lived," McEnroe said. "I really respect the ability of a guy like Novak to find a way to be able to pull stuff like that off."
Budge and Laver went 4 for 4 at Grand Slam tournaments within a calendar year. So there are those who quickly point out that Djokovic's feat wouldn't be considered a true Grand Slam, because it's spread over two seasons.
Would be quite impressive nonetheless, though.
"If he was able to win four in a row? Man, I'd take four in a row any day. It's not technically the 'Grand Slam,'" McEnroe said, "but I'd come up with some statue or something that said I had four in a row, and I'd be parading it around my house for the rest of my life."
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