Novak Djokovic: Can He Tame the Lion in His Own Den?

SubbaramanContributor IIIJune 8, 2012

ROME, ITALY - MAY 21:  Rafael Nadal of Spain lifts the trophy after defeating Novak Djokovic of Serbia in their final match during day ten of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2012 at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 21, 2012 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

So there we are, not surprisingly, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are the two men standing in a Grand Slam, after every other match, except the final has been played. Over the past year, these two warriors have been head and shoulders over the rest of the field, including Roger Federer, and no wonder they are ranked 1 and 2 in the world. On Sunday, the combined Grand Slam count of Rafa and Novak would be 16 regardless of the outcome of the match and would equal Roger's grand slam victories signifying their dominance in the modern sport. Its ironic that Nadal–despite playing brilliant tennis over this period–has nothing to show for, except for three successive consolation place shields while Djokovic has walked away with the trophy.

After that epic final in Melbourne earlier this year, most mortals would have lost all their will to rise up and fight again. That defeat was the worst of Nadal's career. But Rafa Nadal is no ordinary mortal, and almost can't be called a mortal. He came back from that and beat Novak in two clay court finals in the spring is a testament to his will more than just his skill. However, come Sunday, those wins will not matter much, because there is a lot more on the line for both players.

For me, the seventh French Open win for Nadal and eclipsing the great Bjorn Borg is just a statistic. What Rafa Nadal wants most right now is to beat Djokovic in a Grand Slam Final, in a best of five match. That is an entirely different feeling than any ATP Masters win. Victory against Djokovic in a Grand Slam Final will taste much sweeter for Nadal than any other record at the moment. Despite his recent victories against Djokovic and reversing the 7-Nil trend, Nadal will not take any thing for granted against Djokovic. He knows that beating Djokovic in a grand slam final, even if it is on the familiar Philip Chattrier court, is something else.  

Djokovic also wants this final match-up, not just because of the rare chance to make history after 43 years, but because if he can pull this off, his domination over Nadal would be complete. For him to have beaten Rafa Nadal in four successive grand slam finals, on four different surfaces, and to finish Nadal at the French, that would seal it. Even Nadal would have to accept that he simply has been outclassed by a superior player. Despite everything that he has achieved over the past eighteen months, for Djokovic to win on Sunday against Nadal at Roland Garros, would have to be the greatest victory of his life. No question about that. Such would be the magnitude of this win were he to achieve that.

Nadal has lifted his game during this clay court season from the early hard court season and is looking in prime form. He has vanquished some worthy opponents and reduced them to look like novices on the court. Djokovic will have to play inspired and brilliant tennis to have a chance against the king of clay. Essentially, he will have to tame the lion in his own den.

For that, Djokovic would need to improve his game vastly from where it has been throughout the tournament. Even against Federer, Djokovic was far below his best and Roger's self-destructive behavior also contributed towards Novak's win. Novak is not going to receive any such largesse from the Spaniard on Sunday. Djokovic would need to get his return of serve to almost 2011 levels if not those levels to put pressure on Nadal's serve. Nadal has noticeably changed his serve patterns from 2011 when he was being pulverized by the Serb almost every time he served. Nadal also has been getting more returns on Novak's serve compared to 2011. He has also been playing to Djokovic's forehand more in this year than the last, a tactic that has worked well. Of course, there is a fine line between playing to the forehand and getting crushed, because the Djokovic game really has no glaring weaknesses.

A game played at the level that it has been between these two greats of the game is decided by a few crucial points and that's how this match probably would be. Despite his recent victories against Djokovic, Nadal would still be wary of Djokovic from the mental scars imposed on him over the past year. If Djokovic can impose his will and game over Nadal, he definitely has a legitimate chance to glory on Sunday. Regardless of the outcome on Sunday, Djokovic can now be spoken of as a great of the game. If he wins on Sunday, one has to take their hat off and salute this true legend of the game. Djokovic can retire the following day after his win and not add to his grand slams after, and still be considered a legend of the game. Such are the stakes in this match.