Saturday, June 9, 2012
History will fall, one way or the other
By Howard Bryant ESPN.com
PARIS -- At this late date, after all the sets and all the points and all the hurdles, only one remains for Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal: each other. They are where they expected to be -- in the final of the French Open. Through different paths and contrasting degrees of difficulty, the main event following their epic 5-hour, 53-minute Australian Open final has arrived.
So much history-making rests on the performance of each, but Djokovic and Nadal have already made tennis history just surviving the French Open draw. No pair of rivals in the history of the Open era, not Borg and McEnroe, Connors and McEnroe, Sampras and Agassi, has ever met in four straight Slam finals. Djokovic has beaten Nadal at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open consecutively. Nadal is not only trying to win his seventh French Open, but he's attempting to break that agonizing losing streak as well.
With a win in the men's final, Rafael Nadal will stand alone with seven French Open titles.
Although the history is obvious -- Nadal is trying to break a tie of six French Open titles with Bjorn Borg, and Djokovic is bidding to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once -- the future will also be shaped by Sunday's events. A victory for Djokovic would cement his status that over five sets, on any surface, he is the dominant player in the game, and he is without peer.
A Nadal victory would return the balance in his favor, a resurgence that began in the fourth set of the Australian Open, when Nadal saw his own tennis mortality in the face of Djokovic. For the first time in Nadal's career, a player stood on the other side of the net that he could not beat with his current game. From the fourth set forward, despite ultimately losing the match, Nadal began hitting deeper backhands, attacking Djokovic's forehand and concentrating on creating a bigger weapon out of his serve. After losing seven consecutive finals to Djokovic, Nadal righted himself this year by winning their last two meetings, both on clay, in the Monte Carlo and Rome Masters finals.
Djokovic destroyed a listless Roger Federer in the semifinals Friday, yet Federer still referred to Djokovic as an underdog against Nadal. This no doubt will fuel the fire that resides in Djokovic, one that helped him tame Andreas Seppi and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga here.
Nadal's heat-seeking focus during the fortnight has been evident both on the court and in the weeks leading up to Roland Garros, where he had been calibrating his game to play Djokovic. Through total destruction of excellent top 15-level players, he has arrived at his moment, and nothing, not the competition or the pressure of history or the fickle weather, will stand in his way.
"What can I think? What can I think?" Nadal said Saturday about the ominous forecast that threatens to wipe out the final. "If it rains, it rains, then we play Monday. That is all."
But perhaps the potential break will give us more time to think about the personality of today's tennis dynamic, which has been on display for two weeks. From the French love of Federer to the doomed, demoralized faces of Nadal's opponents to the terrific struggles and triumphs of the great Djokovic in his quest for the career Slam, this tournament has been nothing short of sensational.
Djokovic is the best player in the game today. And that's saying something considering the giants whose followings are as big as their championship resumes. Federer is not only the most decorated player of his time, but he is also the most beloved. During his semifinal loss to Djokovic, it was clear who the public favored. With each Federer serve, each wild forehand forced by the wind, the Chatrier crowd groaned and tried to rebuild Federer with applause, and Djokovic could not help but notice. Of course, it did no good as Djokovic continued to smother Federer like a boa constrictor, and as his dominance grew, the crowd slowly responded to his excellence. It is not an easy balance.
Djokovic is not Ivan Lendl, who gave off little personality and played with a driven, cold efficiency that did not connect him to the public, especially as the successor to Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Borg as the game's next great player. McEnroe was not universally beloved, but he played with a passion that fans could identify with.
Djokovic is funny and personable and charismatic, but unlike Lendl, who once said to a postmatch audience that he wished one day the crowd would root for him, he has made his appeals to the public for a hug. The most noticeable was after The Shot, which Djokovic hit against Federer in that tremendous U.S. Open comeback.
At times on the court, Djokovic moves in an uncomfortable acknowledgement that he is for now, and perhaps permanently, not exactly a villain, but certainly not a sentimental favorite.
It remains to be seen if a Djokovic victory will shorten the gap between love and admiration from the crowds, but during the tournament there is no questioning his ability to channel and focus against the most desperate of odds.
It has become part of his legend.