|Rafael Nadal & Novak Djokovic
Paris: They have played 32 times. Their historical agendas are of similar heft. But Rafael Nadal will be on much more familiar ground than Novak Djokovic when they duel for this year’s French Open men’s title Sunday.
That is not simply because Nadal is in his seventh French Open final and Djokovic in his first; not because Nadal grew up sliding on gritty red clay in Majorca while Djokovic cracked his first ground strokes on hardcourts painted green in the Serbian mountains.
It is because Nadal has already played the spoiler — respectfully yet ruthlessly — in Paris.
In 2006 and 2007, Roger Federer, at the peak of his powers, was one victory from winning his first French Open and holding all four Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal shut him down in both finals.
Now it is Djokovic who is in his prime and just a victory from becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to run the Grand Slam table. Again, Nadal is the roadblock and the rightful favourite.
“It’s an ultimate challenge,” Djokovic said Friday after beating Federer in straight sets in the semifinals. “But I believe that today was the best match of 2012 Roland Garros for me, so I’ve raised my game when I needed to. I played really well when it was the most important, so that’s something that gives me confidence obviously before the finals.”
“It’s difficult to imagine another match of six hours,” Nadal said Saturday. “But I will be there fighting for every ball. We cannot predict what’s going on. The only thing I have to predict is that he is playing well, he is playing with confidence. And I have to play aggressive. I have to play my game.”
Nonetheless, “ultimate challenge” is not hyperbole when it comes to Nadal and Roland Garros. In both statistical and psychological terms, beating Nadal here is one of the toughest tasks in sports.
Nadal is 51-1 at the French Open, his only loss coming in the fourth round to Robin Soderling in 2009. Over all, Nadal’s career winning percentage of 93 percent on clay (253-19) is the best of any leading player, including Bjorn Borg, the unflappable Swede who is the only other man to win six French Open titles.
The death of Djokovic’s grandfather in April during the Monte Carlo tournament makes it wise to discount that result. “They were very close, so close,” said Djokovic’s trainer Miljan Amanovic, tearing up as he discussed the matter. “He was always there for him, always at home with Grandpa, always not forgetting to call him.”
In light of Nadal’s form and short matches here, Djokovic will need all the energy he can muster. But there is no doubt that he, if anyone, has the capacity to complicate matters for Nadal on clay with his mobility, elastic power and rare ability to transform defence into offence with his two-handed backhand. If Nadal feels the pressure and fails to get depth on his ground strokes, particularly with his holding shot, the backhand, Djokovic probably will capitalize.
“For sure, I will have my doubts for tomorrow,” Nadal said Saturday. “For sure, I have to respect the other opponent. He beat me a lot of times. But I am here to fight every ball and to try my best in every moment.”
If Nadal prevails, he will stand alone as a seven-time French Open men’s champion: something Borg, who is not planning to attend the final, has been expecting for years. If Djokovic wins, he will, like Nadal and Federer, complete the career Grand Slam but, unlike Nadal and Federer, possess all four trophies at the same time.
That, Djokovic conceded, would be a thrill but not the essential. “Obviously, I had a lot of doubts in the last couple of years, if I can really overcome the big challenge of the two strongest players in our sport,” he said.
Meanwhile, top seeds Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor captured a second successive French Open doubles title by beating American twins Bob and Mike Bryan 6-4 6-4 in the final on Saturday. NYT News Service