So after all the bad weather, late matches, upsets, upstarts and fantastic flameouts, we are left with what we all though we’d see on the third Sunday: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, chapter 42. And it’s the right way to finish what has been a very intriguing clay season.
The two advance yesterday in two very humdrum semifinals. I mean really humdrum.
Novak Djokovic jumped out early on a rather overwhelmed Ernests Gulbis. But up two sets and rolling, one of those bad patches hit Djokovic and Gulbis grabbed the third. Then a weary Novak hung on in the fourth to win in 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.
Novak played OK. Gulbis played OK. It just wasn’t anything great.
“It requires a little bit of an adjustment because we played for over 10 days of the tournament in overcast and a little bit heavier conditions,” said Djokovic of the warmer, quicker conditions. “The ball wasn’t bouncing as high as it did today… Today the hitting point was a bit higher, so you had to adjust to that. And of course it was strong sun. That also affects the fatigue of the players.”
The second semi between Andy Murray and Nadal was billed as the marquee match. But if possible, it turned out even worse than Djokovic-Gulbis. Far worse. A lackluster Murray could barely put up a fight in an almost humiliating 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 loss to Rafa.
“It was a bad, bad day,” said Murray who still has never made a clay final. “You can go out there with all the tactics in the world, but when he’s hitting the ball like that, it’s very difficult to hit the ball where you want to.”
So on to the main event…
Rafael Nadal v Novak Djokovic
They’ll meet for a 42nd time. Nadal leads 22-19 but Novak’s won the last four winning 8 of the last nine 9 sets, all since the US Open win by the Spaniard.
That’s some run.
This is Roland Garros clay, however. This is Nadal’s domain, his playground. And you know the numbers. Rafa’s 65-1 at the French Open winning 34 straight matches. He’s also 89-1 lifetime in best-of-5 on clay. It’s also his ninth French Open final and he’s 8-0 when he reaches this stage.
When Novak looks flips through the pages and pagers of ATP Rankings, no one on there has done what he’s trying to do, and that’s beat Rafa at the French!
So where’s the belief come from for Novak? Well, he’s into just his second career French final. And he’s inside Nadal’s head with those recent wins. Plus he arguably should have won a year in Paris and came close the year before in the final.
Can he do it, that’s the question.
“I don’t know how much upper hand I have, really,” assessed Djokovic. “You have to take in consideration the results that he had in Roland Garros and that I had in my career. I think there is no doubt that he is the favourite to win the title there. But, OK, I have been playing some good tennis.
“Rome a few weeks ago against him in the final definitely gives me confidence and hopefully self-belief before our match. [On the] other hand, the physical challenge that we present to each other is a very important factor in our matches. I know that I’m going to be facing a player who plays every point [as] a match point; a great competitor.”
As all their matches do to me, this hinges on Nadal’s second serve and Novak’s backhand down the line. So it’s basically on Djokovic’s racquet – his max level is higher than Nadal’s irrespective of surface. If Rafa’s not getting the velocity on his second than Novak should pounce. And if Novak can hit that backhand where he wants it – signaling confidence – he’ll be in good shape.
Even though he says it was one of his best matches, I don’t put much stock in Nadal’s win Friday – Murray just didn’t show up – which makes me feel like he’s not at his max peak level from years earlier. That said, neither is Novak who still working through those periodic lapses, trying to return to 2011 form. So I don’t think either is where they were two years ago or even last year when they played the epic 5-set semi.
But Djokovic has to be feeling better about his chances Sunday than he did a year ago entering that semi.
As for Rafa, he’ll take with him the fact that Novak’s never beaten him at the French (0-5) and the fact Novak’s failed to win this the last two years. So when it comes to that very moment to win in the biggest occasion of his life, can Novak really do it?
At the start of the year I picked Novak to win the French over Rafa. At the start of the event I picked Novak over Rafa. Now when it matters I’m starting to waffle. The weather is foretasted to be like Saturday. Rafa’s seemed to have ironed out some of the kinks against Murray while Djokovic, who hinted of some physical issues, may be a little bit off. And you can’t be off against Nadal in Paris.
“I have the pressure that I want to win and the motivation that I want to win the ninth,” Nadal said. “I’m going to go on court with the same motivation as him (Djokovic). I don’t know if the same pressure than him. Probably we are in different situations. What’s going to make the real impact is the player who will be playing better. It’s true that he defeated me four times in a row. This will have an impact, but I hope it will not be too big of an impact.”
Tennis is a matchup sport and Novak matches up to darn well with Rafa to ignore. With a baby coming and with more responsibilities ahead, this might be Djokovic’s last best time to win it. It’s now or never…
The pick: Djokovic in four
NBC will have first ball at 9am ET. It should be a great match!
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