According to this poll, I’m not the only one thinking this is the year Novak Djokovic finally busts through to win the French Open. Minus a bum wrist, the Serb has been dominant since the Australian Open collecting three Tennis Masters titles capped by a virtuoso performance yesterday in a scintillating triumph over arch rival Rafael Nadal in Rome.
I had picked to Nadal to win yesterday based on the belief that Djokovic just wasn’t at full strength yet, not after missing time with the wrist. But I was wrong.
After dropping an uneven first set Djokovic hit his stride and find the range. And once he did he was untroubled by Nadal who I thought was actually playing pretty well. But the same old problems recurred for Nadal. As I’ve said for years Djokovic just matches up nicely with Nadal.
Nadal loves to pound the forehand crosscourt to the opponent’s backhand, but the backhand is a strength of Djokovic’s.
Nadal loves to hit that trusty slice serve to the righty opponent’s backhand, but Novak excels on the backhand return.
Also, Novak can go from defense to offense in a blink and he’s got great reach with his court coverage. All that spells trouble for Nadal if Djokovic is on form, and for those last two sets yesterday unfortunately for the Spaniard he was.
So Djokovic, who celebrates his 27th birthday on Thursday, has to go into the French never feeling better. It seems like that wrist injury is in the past and in his future could very well be a Career Slam in three weeks. Who’s going to stop him?
Nadal obviously could, especially with Novak still prone to those concentration lapses. But mentally after losing yesterday for a fourth straight time to Djokovic, these losses have to take their toll. They had to add up. And since the US Open Nadal’s won just ONE set from Djokovic in NINE tries.
And honestly – I still believe this – Djokovic has a better chance of beating Nadal on clay than a fast hardcourt like the US Open. That’s because on clay Novak will get even more time to jump on that weak second serve and more time to track down Nadal forehands. Can Nadal improve that second serve for Paris? Can he become more offensive when his instincts tell him not to?
The question is for Djokovic, will that wrist hold up and mentally when he gets into that position to win can he beat Nadal in what would be the biggest, most important match of his life (he’s getting married, a baby coming, this could be his last best chance)? What awesome is that I think we are going to find out. Because I don’t see anyone else but these two making the final.
Of course there are other threats at the French. Stan Wawrinka could surprise just as he did in Australia. Stan’s more of an offensive player than Rafa, and he mixes up his serve better, but mentally can he sustain it now that he’s a Slam champion? He had a great run in Monte Carlo, but since has been well below ordinary.
Roger Federer is playing well and so is Andy Murray, but over five sets it’s hard to see either of them beating Novak or Nadal.
Despite his poor outing Saturday against Rafa, I think Grigor Dimitrov could pose a risk. Maybe Tomas Berdych can get hot, or Milos Raonic or John Isner have monster serving days and trouble Nadal, maybe Novak.
But bottom line, unless Novak gets tight or that wrist relapses, I just don’t see anyone beating him in Paris.
As for Nadal, he has to be shaken right now. He just got blown out for the fourth straight time by his main rival. And at times their collisions look like total mismatches. To make matters worse, he’s also struggling against everyone else! Why? Who knows. There doesn’t seem to be a physical issue so that means it’s mental (or off court, personal or he’s just older – he turns 28 on the day of the semis – and not as good). And often those issues between the ears are the toughest to get right.
So while Nadal is probably and rightfully still the French favorite among the bookies, to me he just hasn’t been that impressive this season. And really dating back to the US Open. That’s why I chose Djokovic over him in in Paris at the start of the year.
Remember when I said Rafa’s summer hardcourt run may not have been all that magnificent? That his rise was aided by Murray being injured, Federer being old and injured and Djokovic just plain out of it?
And remember when I said at the end of last year that maybe Nadal was overworking himself by taking the money in South America?
So here are my pre-draw favorites in order:
1. Novak Djokovic – Four straight convicing wins over Nadal is awfully hard to ignore.
2. Rafael Nadal – Until someone beats him in Paris he’s still the King of Clay.
3. Stan Wawrinka – Hard to gauge to the new Slam winner, but the French should suit him.
4. Roger Federer – Father Federer played well in Monte Carlo but got blown away in Rome.
5. David Ferrer – Former finalist could sneak into that Wawrinka semifinal spot, if the draw breaks right.
6. Grigor Dimitrov – Has shown the ability to play with the big boys.
7. Kei Nishikori – Health is a major issue.
8. Andy Murray – Showed some life in Rome, but will he go all out in Paris with a Wimbledon title defense looming?
9. Milos Raonic – If the conditions are dry that’ll help.
The French Open draw I believe will be released on Friday.
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