Rafael Nadal's Biggest Weaknesses Against David Ferrer in French Open Final

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJune 9, 2013

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 26:  Rafael Nadal of Spain walks off court with David Ferrer of Spain in his victory in their quarterfinal match during day ten of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The Champions League had its All-German final earlier this month, and on Sunday Roland Garros will host an All-Spanish affair: Rafael Nadal vs. David Ferrer for the French Open title.

Seeking his eighth career victory on these hallowed grounds, Rafael Nadal has been pegged a massive favorite in the match. It makes sense, too: Not only is he the better player, he's the more experienced one, facing off with a man who has never made a Grand Slam final.

But the match is far closer than it appears prima facie, David Ferrer enjoying a number of advantages that aren't clear until further consideration is given.

Here are three things Nadal will have to overcome if he wants to win:


First-Set Woes

Nadal has ameliorated his first-set issue in later rounds, but that does exempt him from relapse potential. He's been getting off to relatively slow starts where his opponent has been dominant.

In his six matches to date, Nadal has gone 4-2 in first sets but has dropped 28 games in the process. That hardly inspires confidence.

Especially against Ferrer, who hasn't just gone 6-0 in first sets this tournament—he's gone 18-0 in combined sets. That's right: He's swept each match he's played three sets to nil.

Ferrer has only dropped 13 first-set games in his first six matches, less than half the number Nadal has. All of which is to say: Ferrer stands a good chance of going up 1-0 against Nadal, and going behind like that could be a dangerous disadvantage for the defending champ. Especially considering...


...Nadal's Physical Fitness

I think we're past the point where Nadal's return from injury is noteworthy. His tournament victories leading up to Roland Garros, along with his impressive return to the finals here, have both made it clear that he feels limited ill effects from his time off.

No, Nadal's physical fitness comes into question, in part, because of what was alluded to above. He's had a much more strenuous tournament than his opponent.

Ferrer benefited from one of the luckiest draws in recent memory, not needing to play a genuinely tough opponent until Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the semis. His freshness was evident in that matchup, as he swept the Frenchman who has given so many players so many problems in the past. Ferrer made it look easy.

Sweeping 18 sets en route to the final is sort of taking a no-hitter into the ninth, only the opposite. The pitcher holding the no-hitter would likely be tired, perhaps overextending himself in order to accomplish the feat. In tennis, though, going 18 up, 18 down makes you less tired, allowing the player to exert less energy than any other player in the field. And that is advantageous in every sense of the word.

Nadal cannot make the same claim, playing his longest tournament since returning to action. Ferrer's 19th set of the tournament will be set one vs. Nadal; Nadal's 19th set was set two vs. Djokovic. Think about everything Rafa had to endure after that second set. Think about the beads of sweat that dripped off his coif and splattered onto the clay.

All of that is the difference between Rafa's form and Ferrer's. Hopefully for the former, it won't mean the difference between winning and losing.


Ferrer's Career-Defining Moment

Nadal is four years younger than Ferrer, and barring unforeseen circumstance, he will play about that much longer. But for Rafa, the logline of his story has already been written. No matter what happens from here, he'll go down among the best players ever—no result on Sunday can change that.

But for David Ferrer, Sunday's match means everything. His entire legacy hangs in the balance. Ferrer has had a great career, but he was born in the wrong era—an epoch that was ruled by four and only four people. There's no reason a player this good should be making his first Grand Slam final at 31.

But alas, that's how it played out, and against Rafael Nadal this afternoon, Ferrer will attempt to alter his eternal legacy. Will he go down as a Grand Slam champion? Or will he go down as a guy who could never quite get over the hump?

Like John Proctor in The Crucible, the sanctity of David Ferrer's name is on the line. If it took him this long to make a Grand Slam final, it's not wrong to assume he'll never make it back. He won't be playing with a "win or go home" attitude—he'll be playing with an air that screams "win or die on the warm, burnt clay."

Nadal won't lack for energy, but his opponent is sure to be more invested and more fired up than he will be. It will be interesting to see how Rafa responds to that emotion.