The very best rivalry in all of tennis resumes tomorrow in Montreal. Of course I’m speaking of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal who’ll clash in a battle of the No. 1 player overall against the No. 1 man this year.
The last time these two collided it was an epic 5-setter in the French Open semifinals. The last time they faced off on a hardcourt they played nearly six hours with Djokovic coming out ahead in a pulse-pounding Australian Open final in 2012. Now they meet again in a match that won’t be, can’t be that long, can it?
Nadal leads 20-15 in their series winning four of the last five. But all those matches were on clay, not on hardcourts which is Novak’s ground of choice and he leads Rafa 11-5 on it, winning the last four. And Djokovic has also dominated this Montreal event winning 13 straight matches at the Canadian Open the last two years with two titles.
What’s nice is both players come in injury-free and playing relatively well in this their first event since Wimbledon. After a shaky performance against Denis Istomin Thursday, tonight Djokovic destroyed a weak-minded Richard Gasquet 6-1, 6-2 in a rematch of their 2012 Toronto final. Nadal looked equally sharp punishing Australian qualifier Marinko Matosovic and the Spaniard is the only remaining player yet to drop a set.
“I am happy the way that I am playing this week,” Nadal said. “I am gonna fight for the match tomorrow. I am excited to play against a very tough opponent, one of the best, the best today. I need to play my best tomorrow if I want to have any chance.”
Added Djokovic, who spoke before knowing who he’d play on Saturday, “For me it’s very important to try to start well tomorrow against whoever I play. You know, if I’m playing as well as I did today, I think I have a chance to really win against anybody on this court.”
With way Djokovic has looked since Dubai – good but not consistently great – Nadal has a real shot here. But I think Djokovic, if he plays well, will prevail.
I said at the start of the week Rafa would be content if he were to lose to Novak in the semifinals. Nadal’s been through a lot with the injuries, the early Wimbledon loss and hardcourts really isn’t what he builds for. So he’s got to pleased with his week. The knee has been good. He got fought through a tough match with Jerzy Janowicz. Win or lose I think he’s feeling good, feeling healthy and I wonder if he does got all out to beat Novak – remember they play long, grinding, physical matches – might he re-injure his knee?
Whereas for Novak, he absolutely needs this title. And he needs it more than Nadal does. I’ve mentioned before that Novak has just the one title since Dubai (Monte Carlo, beating Rafa) and the last two times he’s played Top 5 players he’s lost – Murray at Wimbledon and Nadal at the French. For a guy ranked No. 1 who hopes to finish the year on top that has to change.
That said, if Nadal were to beat Novak and go on to win Montreal, I think he’d have the mental edge over Novak going into the US Open, assuming Nadal doesn’t lose to him next week in Cincinnati (my guess is if Nadal wins Montreal he’ll skip Cincinnati anyway.)
Still, though, with much more on the line for Novak I give him the very slight edge here.
The pick: Djokovic in two
In the earlier 3pm semifinal, two Canadians will have the place rocking as the surprising Vasek Pospisil meets his good friend Milos Raonic.
The 22-year-old Raonic might be younger by six months but he’s is the higher ranked player and the better overall talent of the two. I recall watching Pospisil play a summer or two ago in Canada and he reminded me of a lightweight Tomas Berdych. And Thursday he showed some of that raw talent beating one Mr. Berdych.
But Raonic’s serve is such a monster weapon that if it’s firing I think he wins. That single shot is the decider in this match.
Both guys, though, might come in a little tired. Pospisil enters having played and won nine matches in the last 10 days or so (he won the Vancouver Challenger over the weekend), but he enjoyed a nice break today when Nikolay Davydenko abruptly retired three games in with a respiratory issue.
Raonic, who was embroiled in that controversy with Juan Martin Del Potro Thursday night, struggled at times today in an ugly 3-set win over Ernest Gulbis. (I have to admit Gulbis, despite hitting 4 double faults to hand an early break to Raonic in the third, actually played some very nice, very smart tennis at times. Maybe there’s hope after all?)
Raonic and Posposil, who played doubles together in 2010 Toronto beating two guys named Djokovic and Nadal, also played together in juniors.
“He won,” Raonic said. “He won most of them as a junior, if not all of them… Most of the tournaments came down to us. There was also another junior back then that was playing really well. Most of the events were between the three of us.”
Now though it’s the seniors and if Raonic wants to be a big star and live up to the potential he’s got to win here. Like Djokovic, I’ll go with the guy who needs it more, and that’s Milos.
The pick: Raonic in three
In the women’s semifinals, no surprise it’s Serena Williams who’s the favorite among the final four in Toronto. Serena will meet Agnieszka Radwanksa. In the other semi it’s Li Na against Sorana Cirstea.
ESPN2 will have coverage starting at 1pm with Toronto then the 3pm Canadian battle from Montreal. Nadal/Djokovic will be under the lights at 8pm.
SATURDAY MONTREAL SCHEDULE
CENTRAL start 13:00
 A Peya (AUT) / B Soares (BRA) vs M Fyrstenberg (POL) / M Matkowski (POL)
Not Before 15:00
[WC] V Pospisil (CAN) vs  M Raonic (CAN)
Not Before 18:00
 R Lindstedt (SWE) / D Nestor (CAN) vs C Fleming (GBR) / A Murray (GBR)
Not Before 20:00
 N Djokovic (SRB) vs  R Nadal (ESP)
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