We have seen it in years past and seen it again this past fortnight — players walking on to Court Philippe Chatrier in Paris simply not believing they can beat Rafael Nadal.
That will not be the case when Novak Djokovic faces him in Friday’s titanic French Open semi-final. Deep down the world No 1 thinks he has it in him to defeat the greatest clay courter, even here.
It is a repeat of the final we saw in last October’s displaced Roland Garros, but I will be very surprised if the outcome is the same comfortable win for Nadal.
Novak Djokovic should target Rafael Nadal’s helicopter shot in the French Open semi-final
In my view Rafa played as well last year as he has ever done at this event, and I do not think you could say that this time.
There have been a few vulnerabilities in his matches to this point.
Jannik Sinner served for the first set against him, Cam Norrie caused some problems early in their second set, and on Wednesday Diego Schwartzman matched him until late in the third set before completely subsiding.
All of them, understandably enough, will have felt intimidated by the aura he has created, but Djokovic is something different altogether.
I would not go as far as to make him favourite, because this is all relative.
It is a repeat of the final we saw in last October’s displaced Roland Garros but I will be surprised if it is another comfortable win for Nadal
Even when not at his peak on clay Nadal’s level is so high that he can afford to drop a bit and still be the best, but I do think Djokovic has a realistic chance.
If I was still coaching him I would be suggesting he goes hard at the Spaniard’s forehand, which has not been at its most consistent in the previous rounds.
Its ‘helicopter’ motion can produce unforced errors if he is pressed enough. Djokovic cannot afford to allow him time on it, so no half shots — Djokovic needs to go hard and flat and if he can do that then he can reap some rewards.
Yet the most important battleground in these contests between two players who have met an incredible 57 times already is in the head.
This being a semi-final and not the final, like it was when they met last month in Rome, does alter the dynamic a bit.
This time Nadal knows that the job is still not done if he wins and then shakes hands at the net.
Another factor is how well Djokovic has recovered physically from what was a gruelling match, physically and emotionally, against Matteo Berrettini late on Wednesday night.
If I was still coaching Djokovic I would be suggesting he goes hard at the Spaniard’s forehand
That, and Nadal’s history, steers me away from calling this as an upset in the making, but the outcome is unsure.
And in the great race for the most Grand Slam titles the Spaniard needs this one more than his opponent. Neither man is getting any younger,
And on the other side of the draw we have a match that is difficult to predict between Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alex Zverev, both of whom have been very impressive and completely deserve their semi-final places.
If one of them were to win without expending too much energy, and Nadal and Djokovic tear lumps out of each other over five sets, Sunday afternoon could be very interesting.
Federer has earned the right to do things his way
As we thought before this tournament, Roger Federer has his sights set very much on Wimbledon. Was his withdrawal mid-tournament out of order?
I think he made a mistake in being so direct in his press conference immediately after his last match by saying he was contemplating it.
If anything he was too honest. Some players would have spun a line about being injured but Federer has very little track record of pulling out because of physical issues, and chose to tell it how it is.
He is Roger Federer and I think he has probably earned the right at his age to do things his way. I also saw enough of him, and the way he moved, to think it would be very foolish to write off his chances at Wimbledon.
Worse for me was young Italian Lorenzo Musetti, 19, retiring before the end of his match against Djokovic because he didn’t feel he could win any more points. Maybe again he was being too honest — he is young and inexperienced and, by the way, a huge talent we will hear much more from.
I saw enough of Roger Federer to think it would be foolish to write off his Wimbledon chances
Night session timing way off
There was nothing the French Open could have done about restrictions on spectators this year, but I do think they made a mistake with their new night session of starting them at 9pm.
That is simply too late to be scheduling a men’s best-of-five set match as they have been inclined to do.
On clay these are prone to going on for so long that it is not fair on the players, sending them out in the knowledge that they may well still be going beyond midnight.
I can completely understand the French Federation wanting to emulate the night sessions of Melbourne and New York.
They will feel so much better with a proper crowd in, and I must admit I found them hard to commentate on this year amid the strange atmosphere of an empty stadium. The French are looking to change evening starts next year to 8pm, which is far more sensible.
I think the French Open made a mistake with their new night session starting at 9pm
Nowhere to hide when playing on clay
Why has the women’s event been so incredibly unpredictable?
Of course we are used to them having a more open field, but think it is the clay effect. On this surface there is nobody resembling a dominant player, not even a top handful of players who are clearly better than the rest.
On clay there is nowhere to hide if you are remotely off your game on a given day. On grass, and hard courts to a lesser extent, you can get away with a bad day at the office a little bit more.
I think when we get to Wimbledon and the second week you will see a more recognisable set of names still going at the business end of the tournament.
The women’s event has been incredibly unpredictable with world No 85 Tamara Zidansek making the semi-finals