It comes down to this. The top two players in the world. The top two seeds in the tournament. The two players who have faced each other over 40 times as professionals, with more than 20 of those contests taking place in Grand Slams.
One, the reigning King of Clay and Roland Garros, the man who has only lost once in Paris, in 2009, when he wasn’t at full strength (to eventual runner-up Robin Söderling). The other, the challenger, already building a legend in his own right, needing just this victory to cement his legacy among the all-time greats by completing a career Grand Slam.
That’s right, we got the final many portended and almost all wanted (barring an intervention from Roger Federer): number one Rafael Nadal versus number two Novak Djokovic. I’ll save you some reading. Nadal is going to win. But in case you’re interested, here’s a recap and the reasons why.
Rafa has won four straight Roland Garros titles, and eight overall (2005-2008 and 2010-2013). He’s been the undisputed best player on clay for almost ten straight years, often eviscerating his opponents in the final (Roger Federer, for example, in 2006, 07, 08, and 2011). If he loses, shock waves will reverberate around the tennis world and Rafa’s dominance will be called into question forevermore, or at least until next year’s tournament, where he will come in hell-bent on reclaiming his crown. His résumé speaks for itself in Paris, where he is already the greatest player to ever set foot on the courts. Winning will further his legacy and add to the greatest ever debate; losing, in my opinion, doesn’t tarnish it at all.
Djokovic is a rising star. It seems silly to say that of a six-time Grand Slam champion, but he does things that make you scratch your head and wonder how he reached that ball, or stretched so far, or cracked that backhand with so much velocity. He always makes you wonder how he could do one better, and then he does. He had a spectacular 2011 season, winning three of the four Slams and capturing the number one ranking (let’s not forget that Federer did this on three separate occasions. Just saying).
He has been a mainstay in Australia, winning three straight titles down under and four overall, but has come back to earth a little bit recently despite his tenacious play, losing mainly to guys playing absolutely out of their minds (Rafa in Paris in 2013, Federer in Paris in 2011), coupled with the fact that he might have been tired (think his 2013 US Open final loss to Rafa, after his ridiculous five-set slog against Stanislas Wawrinka in the semifinals). Wawrinka then played the match of his life to eliminate him in Melbourne in January, but Djokovic has emerged stronger following a wrist tweak that limited his ability during the clay court season. Djokovic has largely shed the quitter in him that caused him to call out trainers at bad moments or to retire in big matches. He’s clutch, in every sense of the word.
He beat Nadal in the final in Rome in a French Open tune-up, and looked great doing it. He knows that history is on the line for him, as he would join such luminaries as Federer, Nadal, Andre Agassi, and Rod Laver as men who accomplished the career Grand Slam by winning all four tournaments. Nadal has looked a little shaky this clay court season, but always seems to find another gear when it matters most. Djokovic beat Nadal in three straight Slam finals, but the way Nadal took him apart in Flushing last year made those losses seem like a distant memory. Suffice to say that these two are about as evenly matched as two players can be.
Both players should be well rested, having gotten through their semifinals fairly easily. Rafa needed only an hour and forty minutes to dispatch listless challenger Andy Murray, and Djokovic faltered but regained his composure to beat feisty Ernests Gulbis in four sets.
To me, this match will be won by whoever can dictate play inside the baseline better. Both are so good at the baseline game, Nadal with his tenacious fighting spirit, Djokovic with his inhuman flexibility and returning anticipation. Nadal makes you earn every single point, Djokovic will make sure that you’re making the mistakes by getting every ball back. If one player can find a rhythm and start to wrong-foot his opponent, either with the serve or the groundstrokes, that might spell doom with both so evenly matched. Look for Djokovic to establish his backhand and Nadal to do the same with the forehand early. They’re both essential to the success of each player.
The weather might be a factor, as at time of writing, the forecast called for morning rain in Paris on Sunday, which would slow things down and ostensibly favor Djokovic, who doesn’t use quite as much spin as Nadal, and whose shots thus would not be quite as affected by the damp conditions. Nadal knows the clay like the back of his hand, though, and will adjust accordingly. These guys play so similarly that describing one is almost like describing the other, and I fully expect the match to be a classic five-setter for the ages.
So that’s what’s at stake: more icing on the immortality cake for Nadal and confirmation that even when he hasn’t been at his best, he can still beat the best; and a hugely important milestone for the Djoker, his own career Slam, validation of his clay court talent, and a claim to fame unlike any other: beating Nadal, on his best surface, on the biggest stage of them all.
Other than that, it’s pretty minor.
My prediction? Nadal, just because his dominance is such a given that I’ll only believe it’s over when someone pries that trophy from his tired fingers. It’s like the Red Sox beating the Curse of the Bambino in 2004: I didn’t think the Cardinals were done until the final out was recorded. That’s how much faith I have in Nadal. He’s a force of nature on clay, injuries be damned. He will adjust to anything and everything the Djoker will throw at him, and return it with more spin than a Fox News interest piece.
Enjoy, and keep it here for an upcoming women’s preview.