For the second time in two days, history will descend upon Court Philippe Chatrier and add an extra layer of honor to a Roland Garros champion. No matter the outcome, the victor on Sunday will claim a special place in the annals of the sport: Nadal by becoming the first man to win seven titles at the season’s second major, Djokovic by completing the career Grand Slam and becoming the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four major trophies at the same time. To earn that landmark accomplishment, fittingly, each man will need to conquer his greatest challenge. Not quite at the level of the Federer-Nadal rivalry in prestige, the thrilling duels between the current top two men could rise to comparable heights if they collaborate on a classic with so much at stake.
Since the six-hour Australian Open final, observers have awaited this moment eagerly as the moment when one man either establishes his stranglehold over the other at majors or the moment when the oppressed rises up against the oppressor. Harried around the globe by the Serb from Indian Wells 2011 to Melbourne in 2012, the Spaniard finally struck back by winning their two clay meetings this year in Monte Carlo and Rome. Perhaps a hint that the tide may have turned temporarily or at least ebbed, those collisions provide Nadal with a blueprint for defending the only territory that survived Djokovic’s assault last year. Serving more authoritatively than usual on the first occasion, the world #2 neutralized his rival’s lethal return by varying his placement and interweaving his lefty angles with body serves. While he cannot expect to maintain that efficiency at will, Nadal can continue that strategy early in this match until Djokovic proves his ability to find an answer. Through six matches (eighteen sets) here, in fact, he has lost only one service game of 72 in a stunning statistic that he never would have compiled during his younger days. Without such an overpowering serving performance in Rome, Rafa nevertheless willed himself to strike the rest of his strokes more aggressively than he would against almost any other opponent. His forehand landed closer to lines, while he positioned himself closer to the baseline in neutral rallies. As always, though, the defending champion’s superlative defense has formed the cornerstone of his accomplishments on clay, and his retrievals this fortnight have illustrated his confidence in the health of his knees. Calmest when healthy and most dangerous when calm, Nadal never has lost at Roland Garros in prime physical condition, nor has he ever lost a final here.
On the other hand, he has lost a final to this rival at every other major during the past twelve months, a pattern that should buttress Djokovic’s belief as he attempts to do what Federer could not do in two attempts here. In the wake of his grandfather’s death, an emotional malaise blighted his performance in the Monte Carlo final and could allow to discard it as a meaningless precedent. Much more meaningful was the match in Rome, where the Serb came within two points of winning the first set before allowing a crucial missed call to unravel him. Not the most businesslike or poised of champions even at his best, Djokovic has channeled his emotions into positive energy for most of his tenure in the top ranking, but he did not recover that time until he trailed by a set and a break. Such a display of competitive frailty, rare in recent months, would cost him dearly in a Roland Garros final that he enters as the heavy underdog, notwithstanding events in London, New York, and Melbourne. Perhaps forcing himself to set expectations realistically, Djokovic acknowledged after his semifinal that he must produce a thoroughly special performance to join Laver in a club of two. Just as Sharapova faltered briefly in the awareness that her golden opportunity might not return, the world #1 knows that he may not find himself in this position again and must manage the pressure that the situation triggers.
As reasonable as it sounds to temper the expectations of himself and others, Djokovic’s statements casting Nadal as a virtually unstoppable juggernaut on clay may place him in a complicated psychological position if he actually believes them. The Spaniard’s previous challengers here have known that they must leave their comfort zones well behind them to avoid an ignominious demolition, and the Serb appears to believe that he must do so as well. But must he? In his recent seven-match winning streak over Rafa, Djokovic had expelled his rival from his comfort zone without significantly varying his usual patterns himself. Although he would fancy his chances against the Spaniard on hard courts more than clay, his two victories on this surface in 2011 did not much differ from the five elsewhere. Had he won two more points to finish off the first set in Rome, decided by the narrowest of margins, he might enter this final on equal terms with Nadal. The same groundstroke combinations that maneuvered the 10-time major champion out of position on other surfaces can work on clay as well, provided that Djokovic executes them with a slightly higher level of consistency and competes boldly from start to finish. By eyeing the task before him with trepidation, though, he will find it emotionally inviting to plead force majeure when adversity strikes and surrender to what seems the inevitable outcome.
Psychological dynamics aside, comparing the form of the top two men this fortnight suggests that Nadal should prevail no less comfortably than in any of his previous Roland Garros finals, in none of which has he lost more than one set. Probably the most notable statistic concerns their service games lost, of which Djokovic has accumulated sixteen and the defending champion just one. Extended to five sets twice, the Serb also has spent an additional four hours on court despite the long rallies that have characterized Rafa’s matches. While the Australian Open should have dispelled any doubt regarding his ability to recover physically, one wonders about the mental depletion caused by the deficits erased against Seppi and Tsonga. Nevertheless, the agitated body language of the top seed in those tense affairs subsided in a much steadier effort against Federer, which displayed his talent for rising to the level of the competition. Nadal fans will note that Djokovic did not need to rise especially high in his semifinal, for the 2009 champion committed nearly 50 unforced errors in a performance profligate even by the standards of his declining years. From the Djokovic fans will come the response that their hero did not permit the fluctuations across the net to disrupt his methodical progress or delay him past the minimum number of sets. And the satisfaction of avenging the bitter defeat to the Swiss star in the same round a year ago may inject the Serb with the momentum to start the final positively.
Start positively he must, for the Nadal whom Djokovic faces on Sunday will bring far greater confidence to the encounter than the version who won the first set in Melbourne and then disappeared until late in the fourth. Not only the surface but the victories in Monte Carlo and Rome will fortify the defending champion against the fears that mounted with each loss in this rivalry last year. Seizing command of the Wimbledon and US Open finals immediately, Djokovic effectively clinched those matches before a stunned Nadal found an opportunity to recover and dig into the trenches. Although he must work harder to win each game this time, the Serb’s task would grow far easier if he starts in that transcendent fashion again, perhaps causing memories of 2011 to float into his opponent’s mind. Likely to feel less pressure from his pursuit of a record than Djokovic will from his quest, Nadal has played so many finals on Philippe Chatrier over the past decade—all with happy endings—that his familiarity with the setting may compensate for any nerves that his opponent stirs. Having stopped Federer from equaling Laver twice in four-set finals, the defending champion should stop the archrival from his own generation in a manner no more suspenseful and perhaps less. Unlike Sharapova, Djokovic should place himself in position to win here year after year, and he probably will convert eventually. But this tournament has belonged so completely to Nadal that such a sharp plot twist at the end seems insufficiently plausible for a fictional narrative, much less for a reality in which Rafa has reigned supreme on red clay longer than anyone before.
Tomorrow, history knocks on his door.