Nole's quest incredibly rare
You know what's really weird about this debate? I can't even decide whether holding all four Grand Slam titles at one time is a greater achievement than beating Rafael Nadal on the red clay at Roland Garros -- Novak Djokovic will have to do if he hopes to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to be champion of all four majors at the same time.
I hate to say it, but Rafa winning his seventh French Open title would be historic. It would be record-shattering. (Nadal and Bjorn Borg each have six Roland Garros titles.) But admit it: After the past five weeks, wouldn't it seem a bit too much like business as usual? That's how great the guy is on clay -- a victim of his own success.
However, if Djokovic wins at Roland Garros, especially if he beats Nadal along the way (as he almost surely must), that would be seismic. You know what they say: "Dog Bites Man" is not news; "Man Bites Dog," now that's news! Add the "Nole Slam" theme and Djokovic will certainly earn the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Laver.
When it comes to the task of beating Nadal on clay, a window of opportunity opened up for Djokovic in 2011. But Nadal slammed it shut during the past five weeks, re-asserting his command of the clay game.
Nobody has taken the measure of Rafa at the second Grand Slam of the year since the fourth round of the tournament in 2009, when Robin Soderling battered the hobbled three-time defending champ. It remains the only "L" on Nadal's French Open record, and Soderling remains the only man ever to beat Rafa in a five-set match on red clay.
Also consider this: Roland Garros is the major at which Djokovic has had the most trouble punching through, and Nadal was responsible for just three of those seven losses in Paris -- and none of them in the past three years.
And don't underestimate the pressure Djokovic will begin to feel starting with the second week of the tournament.
Djokovic and his minions have floated the idea that his main goal this year is the French Open -- therefore, his failure to duplicate his perfect start to 2011, and his recent losses to Nadal in the finals at Monte Carlo and Rome, ought not to be taken too seriously.
If that is indeed Nole's strategy, he's breathtakingly bold -- and confident. Let's see whether he's ready to bite the dog.
Rafa's dominance unmatched
The other day I was thinking about what's at stake for Novak Djokovic in Paris. A chance at immortality. A chance to accomplish something that neither the likes of Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal can say he's done. If Djokovic can complete his quest, he'd join the regal Rod Laver as the only players in the Open era to hold all four major titles at once.
The other day I was thinking about what's at stake for Rafael Nadal in Paris. A chance at immortality. A chance to accomplish something that neither the likes of Federer nor Djokovic can say he's done. Not only would Nadal win his record-breaking seventh French Open title, but he would join Pete Sampras (Wimbledon) as the only two players to bag seven titles at any one Slam.
Then, the other day I was thinking: So which would be the greater feat? Tennis can be an awfully agonizing game. And these two endeavors speak to the rare excellence in both Djoker and Rafa. To play at a level so high for so long that they could put themselves in this spot, that's something.
So which would it be? Djoker or Rafa? Rafa or Djoker? Let's go to the chalkboard, shall we?
Nadal has transcended the clay-court game. He's compiled a ridiculous 45-1 record at Roland Garros, which includes six, yes six titles. In what universe are those figures even conceivable?
Granted, Djokovic is on the brink of history as he shoots for his fourth straight Slamaroo. But let's put it in perspective: Djokovic has dominated for just over one, yes, one year.
Not only has Nadal vanquished nearly everyone in his way at Roland Garros since 2005, he has -- oh, by the way -- won titles at every other major as well. He is not, by any stretch, the proverbial one-trick pony. Nadal has adjusted his game to succeed on grass and hard courts. And he's won a record 21 Masters 1000 events, too.
And consider this: Nadal has dominated for so long that we're quick to dismiss the amount of effort it takes to win on clay. It's not as if Nadal is winning his French Open titles by dint of aces or two-shot rallies. What he does takes an inordinate amount of stamina and focus and heart. To be able to win this tournament every time, except that fluke year in 2009 when he succumbed to Robin Soderling, speaks to the historic nature of what Rafa is shooting for.
Yes, Djokovic is in the midst of his own historic run, and that should not be discounted. But Nadal has faltered once in his life in Paris, and he's had only a few extended slip-ups since 2008, yes 2008. And if my math is correct, that's four-plus years of greatness.