Novak Djokovic v Rafael Nadal In The French Open QFs, Who’s The Pick?
Sorry kids, you have the day off! I know Carlos Alcaraz is playing tomorrow and Holger Rune just pulled the upset of his life today, but the tennis world will be centered on Chatrier Tuesday night for chapter 59 of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, aka the greatest men’s tennis rivalry in history.
Djokovic leads 30-28 and most importantly has won two of their last three at the French Open including that incredible win last year (which is also the last time they played).
A month ago, I would have picked Nadal. Easy. But a lot has changed.
So Djokovic is in a good place while Nadal is playing in good place (Chatrier) but is his head and body right?
The foot hasn’t been an issue and he’s been sharp. But that 5-set match against Felix Auger-Aliassime gives me pause. Nadal turns 36 on Friday and even though he’s the indefatigable Rafa, I have to think he’s going to be feeling just a little light in the fuel department tomorrow night.
The match is also being played at night in the even-cooler conditions which should help Djokovic at least mentally.
I’ve heard a lot about Djokovic’s motivation and he has a lot. Getting to 21, winning a third Career Slam and of course atoning for that Australian Open fiasco which ended with Nadal winning that title and taking the all-time lead. Those are all big.
But Rafa’s got motivation as well. Avenge his loss to Novak last year, win his first title on clay in over a year and give himself a shot at finishing the year No. 1. (And heck, maybe he puts a calendar Slam in play!)
So as is custom when they play, there’s a lot at stake.
I’ll assume Nadal’s foot is OK and physically he’s fine. And the playing-at-night concern is not really a concern at all for Nadal who rolled Richard Gasquet last year and Jannik Sinner in 2020, both at night. And he hammered Djokovic in the cool, fall 2020 final.
But Djokovic looks to be back in full flight. And when that’s the case, that’s trouble for Rafa.
Novak’s won his last nine matches and his last 22 sets, beating some pretty decent players in Rome and the other day he whipped Diego Schwartzman.
He’s got the confidence that I don’t think Nadal has right now. Yes, he beat Felix but remember Felix had never even won a match in Paris before, and he was down two sets in the first round.
It feels like the regular Rafa would have taken Felix out in three. Regular Rafa wouldn’t need to scrape by David Goffin in Madrid saving four match points!.
He also knows to beat Djokovic he’ll have to suffer both during and after — remember he played two matches the rest of the season the last time Rafa played Novak.
As long as Novak doesn’t go back to the drop shots like he did in that 2020 final and he serves well, the match is his. To me, the difference is the motivation. Djokovic has a chance to start fresh after that crushing US Open loss and Australian Open deportation. It’s a chance to rebuild and I think that’s what he does.
Nadal puts up a fight, but…
The Pick: Djokovic in 4
In the “undercard” it’s a rematch of the Madrid final between Carlos Alcaraz and Alexander Zverev. Both guys are lucky to make it this far after each saved match points last week.
Alcaraz escaped as Albert Ramos Vinolas chocked at the time of asking while Sebastian Baez couldn’t finish off the German.
This time, Alcaraz might have the complaint after playing his last two matches at night. Now he’s on the day session (he’ll be fine).
Obviously Alcaraz comes in as the favorite and under the microscope. He’s won his last 14 matches while Zverev hasn’t won a title all year and really hasn’t played well this week.
But Alcaraz has had his own wobbles as that weight of expectation keeps pressing down upon him. That weight will be ever greater tomorrow as now he’ll be the hunted rather than the hunter. He says he lives for these big matches, the big moments. Well, now he’s the one who expected to win and doing in best-of-5 against a top notch opponent (not Karen Khachanov).
Like Djokovic, Zverev will be motivated by what has been a disappointing 2022 in many ways, both on and off the court. And he’ll want to make up for that horrible showing in the Madrid final. Plus, this time he’ll be loose as the underdog. He might as well “just got for it.” So while I give him an excellent chance to win maybe a 5-setter, I’ll still go with the trend and that trend is Alcaraz.
He’s still making way too many unforced errors and the drop shots seem to be a bit off. But it’s not like Zverev’s been a ray of sunshine.
On the other side, Daniil Medvedev’s lack of play and lack of belief on the clay caught up to him today. Same for Stefanos Tsitsipas who is clearly still struggling with that blown chance a year ago. Coming back to Chatrier has resurrected those demons. But credit to Marin Cilic and Holger Rune for getting through along with Casper Ruud and Andrey Rublev. Anyone of the four could emerge in that Sunday final. But the player that does, probably won’t be the favorite. That hasn’t changed.
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