So here we go, the match we all want to see. Sorry Monte Carlo, but this is the real one. This one has a lot on the line.
Is Rafa still the King of Clay? Will Novak Djokovic ever win the French and complete the career Grand Slam? Let’s get to it.
Novak Djokovic v Rafael Nadal
There are the numbers. A lot of them.
23-20 Rafa leads. 6-0 Rafa leads at the French Open. And on and on.
Looking at the head-to-head numbers, the fact Nadal is 1043242-1 on clay in best-of-5, Rafa should win tomorrow, but he won’t. He won’t because he’s not as good as he was. He won’t because he’s losing to guys like Fabio Fognini and dropping sets to Jack Sock. (If you are losing sets to someone named Jack Sock, how are you going to beat Novak Djokovic?)
The only chance Rafa has is if Novak gets tight, and that’s possible. I think that’s what happened last year after Novak won the first set against Nadal in the French Open final. He started seeing the end and that was it. He blinked.
This year though, Nadal just hasn’t looked good at all. There are patches, but patches won’t beat someone Djokovic, a world No. 1. Patches will beat Andrey Kuznetsov and the aforementioned Sock, but to beat Novak you need play a complete match, at top level. That’s three sets. And I don’t think Rafa has that in him right now.
Now maybe I’m wrong and Rafa somehow corrects what’s been troubling him – short shots (and shorts!), high error count, weak serving and court positioning issues. Most of that comes from confidence which he can get back.
The problem is against Novak even if he is firing on all cylinders, Novak just matches up so well against him. From the forehand to the backhand and especially the return of serve which will allow Novak to gain control early when Rafa serves up that second offering.
So for Novak to win, he just needs to play his game, go for his shots and attack Rafa’s second serve. It’s routine really.
For Rafa, he needs to be confident in his game, serve well and serve big, and hit his targets off the ground. And use the Chatrier court which has only let him down once. It’s his home away from home.
Honestly, like Stan did, Novak should run away with the match. But I think mentally he’ll keep Rafa around to make things interesting.
And part of me thinks Rafa’s still the man. He’s still the King, and I really want to pick him here. But every King falls eventually, even if it is on his 29th birthday.
The Pick: Novak in 4
Andy Murray v David Ferrer
“Second fiddle” is what Murray calls this match. And it might turn out to be the better one if Rafa doesn’t up his level.
Other than the demise of Rafa, Murray has been the story of this clay season. Since tying the knot in April, Murray’s run off a remarkable 14 straight matches and his first two clay titles, including a win over Nadal in a lopsided Madrid final.
And he’s looked all business so far in Paris. He’s dropped a couple of sets but no harm, no foul. That’s usual for him.
Wednesday, however, he gets his first real clay test at the French Open in David Ferrer. Murray leads 9-6 but on the clay is where Ferrer is up 4-0.
Much like the Nadal-Djokovic match, the eye test tells me Murray’s the better player while the aging Ferrer just isn’t the same guy he was when they last played on this same dirt three years ago.
To me, when Murray’s playing well he just does everything better than David. Of course if he’s playing bad then it’s a big advantage to Ferrer. That’s how it is for the 33-year-old Ferrer these days. Against the big names, rarely is the match on his racquet.
So I expect Murray to show up and bring his game and return the semifinals. But Ferrer will push him.
The Pick: Murray in 4
As for surprises, about the only things that would shock me would be if both Nadal and Ferrer won in straight sets. Otherwise, the better players on the season should win.
ESPN2 will have live coverage in the U.S. starting at 8am ET with the two simultaneous women’s semis and then the men. It should be a great morning of tennis.
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