All is right in Rafa land again
"I know that of course this is the court he's most dominant on," Djokovic said Friday after locking down a sixth meeting with the Spaniard. "He has only lost one time in his career. This is where he plays his best."
Court Philippe Chatrier, where the vast majority of Nadal's 65 French Open victories have come, is certifiably the largest clay venue in the world. In Sunday's final, Djokovic will try not to let Nadal get into his head.
"It's a very wide and very big court," Djokovic observed. "He likes to have that visual effect, as well, because it appears that he gets every ball back. He feels more comfortable when he plays on the bigger court. That's one of the reasons why he's so successful here."
Last year, Djokovic came closer to beating Nadal here than he had ever come. He was serving at 4-3 in the fifth set to take a 5-3 lead. He eventually lost 9-7. The year before, Nadal beat Djokovic 7-5 in the fourth.
"Knowing that I was that close to win against him the past two years gives me that reason to believe that I can make it this time," Djokovic said. "He's not unbeatable."
No, he's not. Technically, anyway. Nadal is 65-1 at Roland Garros. Robin Soderling can tell his grandchildren that it was he who did the deed, in the fourth round in 2009. Since then, Rafa has won 34 consecutive matches -- a record for the French Open. Another title would give him an unprecedented five straight; silver-haired Bjorn Borg, who won four in a row 1978-81, will present the trophy.
In the larger context, Nadal is contemplating his ninth title here in the past decade. Consider that no other player has won eight titles at the same Grand Slam. Roger Federer and Pete Sampras both managed to win Wimbledon seven times apiece -- a phenomenal achievement, but one and possibly two behind Nadal. And don't forget that Rafa just turned 28. It's not difficult to imagine him winning 10 championships.
A few months ago, all of this seemed unlikely.
After a discouraging loss to Djokovic in the Miami finals, Nadal embarked on his favorite time of the year. But Rafa encountered rare turbulence on his clay-court swing, losing three times -- in the quarterfinals at Monte Carlo and Barcelona and in the Rome final, losing to Djokovic in Rome.
That last emphatic result pegged Djokovic as the favorite here. For better than two weeks, he remained the choice of the oddsmakers, then Friday dawned. Djokovic seemed to labor in his four-set semifinal victory over Ernests Gulbis, but Nadal rocked Andy Murray, giving him a total of only six games.
At the latest possible juncture, Nadal surged into the position of favorite. Before the tournament, eight of ESPN.com's experts picked Djokovic to win, with only four backing Rafa. Given the chance, how many would switch their pick on the cusp of the final?
Believe it or not, Rafa traces his resurgence to that Rome final.
"This was the first time I felt a [positive] change," he said, "because from that moment I started playing better. Even though I lost in Rome, it was a turning point in my game."
His practices have been getting better; his sore back has improved; and, more importantly, his forehand again has that rocket quality.
"Important thing is that I played at very high level," Nadal said after bludgeoning Murray. "I played probably my best match in the clay-court season today."
A glum Murray allowed that it was the best he'd seen Rafa in 20 career meetings, which is saying something. The speed with which Nadal accelerated into his shots, the power of his serve and forehand, left Murray dispirited. After beating Gulbis, Djokovic said he watched some of the match.
"He's been elevating his game as the tournament progresses," Djokovic said of Rafa, "and he's starting to feel at his best when he needs to.
"It's not the first time that happens in his case."
Djokovic, more than anyone, knows what he's up against. He'll be supremely motivated to win his first title at the French Open and complete the career Grand Slam. He is also aware that the winner here will leave with the No. 1 ranking.
The critical factor could be his physical condition. Djokovic looked disheveled after the Gulbis match and, to beat Rafa, he'll need to be at his very best.
Then again, if Rafa is at full strength, it might not matter.