Adversity fine with Djokovic
PARIS -- OK, I'll admit, Howard, I feel a little bit like David Ferrer.
He looked defeated from the start Friday against Rafael Nadal, and something worse after winning all of five games. Yes, Rafa's playing at an unprecedented level here at Roland Garros -- which is saying something. I'm not entirely confident Novak Djokovic can prevent Nadal from winning his record seventh title in eight tries.
But, we're straying into unprecedented territory here and, frankly, I feel like anything is possible. Certainly, Djokovic feels that way. Did you see him pounding his heart after beating Roger Federer in straight sets?
Thus, Djokovic won his 27th consecutive Grand Slam singles match. If that sounds like a lot, it is. He ties (appropriately) Federer for second place on the all-time list. No. 1 is a guy named Rod Laver. If Djokovic can conjure another great performance, he'll own all four major trophies -- something that hasn't happened since Laver won the calendar Grand Slam 43 years ago.
Here's why I'm thinking it's possible: Djokovic looked terrible in his fourth-round match against Andreas Seppi, losing the first two sets. Did he win that match, Howard? Djokovic looked tight in the quarters against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, losing two of the first three sets. What happened there, Mr. ESPN the Magazine guy?
Yes, he found a way to win when all hope seemed lost. As a result, he's into his first final here at Roland Garros. This would also complete the career Grand Slam for Djokovic, which is more motivation for a player who is keenly aware of his sport's history.
It says here he's going to find a way again. Federer and Nadal have been the best two players of his generation, but Djokovic can do something that they never did. It's probably all he's been thinking about since winning the Australian Open in late January.
I know, I know. Rafa is 51-1 at Roland Garros and Djokovic has lost this tournament all seven previous times. Federer is calling him "an overwhelming favorite." But in this collision of historic milestones, Djokovic will emerge the champion.
In his mind, he has no choice.
Nadal mentally tougher than ever
PARIS -- Greg, if you can ever say that a guy was ever a favorite against the field, even if one guy in it has more majors than anyone else and the other is ranked No. 1 in the world and is going for the career and current Grand Slam, it was Rafael Nadal here at Roland Garros. On Sunday, he will complete the quest and beat Novak Djokovic for his record seventh French Open title.
It isn't because Nadal finally can play the game without Novak Djokovic in his head. Nadal did beat Djokovic on clay both in Monte Carlo and Rome. It isn't because Djokovic struggled through even the pedestrian moments of this tournament, only to rally in the clutch. It isn't because even after escaping an epic match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Djokovic played an average match against a worn and listless Roger Federer.
The reason is Nadal himself. He's the best clay-court player in the world, playing his best tennis of the year. If you take out the monstrosity that was Ion Tiriac's Madrid blue clay, Nadal hasn't lost a set on clay this year. During this tournament, he hasn't even faced a set point.
So much has been made of -- and rightfully so -- the Djokovic resolve under extreme pressure, but it should be considered for a moment that what we've seen during this tournament, and from Nadal this season, is no less remarkable.
After losing to Djokovic in the classic Australian Open final, Nadal oddly had been written off in many quarters as a player who had simply had been eclipsed by Djokovic. But also in some ways by Federer, who briefly overtook Nadal in the rankings following his win in Madrid and Nadal's shocking loss to Fernando Verdasco.
The king of clay was on the downside -- except that he wasn't. He has responded to the Djokovic challenge and Sunday will not only end his three-major final losing streak against Djokovic but give the world No. 1 something to think about heading into Wimbledon: a three-match losing streak to Nadal.