Its the question foremost among tennis aficionados. Will Rafael Nadal successfully defend his French Open title or will Novak Djokovic continue his strangle hold over Nadal in Grand Slam Finals and win his first French Open title?
Of course, for that to happen. both of them have to win their respective first six rounds.
On current form, the only player looking remotely close to stopping that meeting is Roger Federer.
But just staying with Djokovic and Nadal, its clear that the mental stranglehold Novak held over Rafa is no longer there. Not so much after the Monte Carlo final, but certainly after Rome.
Going back to that unforgettable final in Melbourne earlier this year between these two, one feels Novak should have put it away in the fourth set.
Psychological wins within battles mean a lot when two sportsmen who are more or less equal play each other. The fact that that match became an epic by going late into the fifth and ending early morning with Nadal actually coming close to winning it in the fifth but for that fatal error at 4-2 in the fifth, made Nadal realize that he was close to beating Djokovic.
Make no mistake, that was the toughest beat of Nadal's life.
For most mere mortals, that would have been a stunning defeat and could have brought mental scars for years to come, but not for Nadal. He used that to spur his comeback, and what a clay court season he has had this year. And now he no longer fears Novak as he did during those losses last year.
Still, Rafa wants to beat Novak in a best of five, and what better place to do that than in his fortress—Philip Chattrier.
But that's not the entire story.
What is also a factor is that Novak's game itself has fallen compared to his form last season.
Even in the AO final, one felt that Novak wasn't as smooth as what he had played last year, especially in the Wimbledon and US Open finals.
The fact that Nadal had picked up his game was obviously a reason. But Novak's game has deteriorated surprisingly in two areas: his return (it's still the best) is just not as good as last season as he has been missing a lot of them. Also, his serve, which made him almost invulnerable last season, doesn't quite have the same sting.
Novak needs to work on his serve and mix it up a little bit and surprise his opponents—especially Nadal. Once he starts to win a lion's share of his serves as he was doing last season, his return game would automatically pick up because his return game was always his biggest strength.
Mentally, Djokovic needs to believe that he has the better game than Nadal. He needs that because in Nadal, he is facing an opponent who is mentally the strongest he is ever going to face. No other player could have reversed a 7-0 defeat record in such an emphatic fashion as Nadal has.
Djokovic has been suspect mentally in the past before he started the 2011 season.
It is still not his strongest area and he can ill-afford to relax in that department, at least not against Nadal—mentally the toughest player in the sport.
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