French Open 2014 Men's Final: Nadal vs. Djokovic Preview and Prediction

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJune 6, 2014

French Open 2014 Men's Final: Nadal vs. Djokovic Preview and Prediction

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    Put away your upset alerts, the French Open final that we've all been waiting for has arrived. It's officially time for Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic XLII.

    If there was any doubt about who ruled men's tennis after Stanislas Wawrinka won the Australian Open, that has been put to rest throughout this fortnight in Paris. Now, the top two players in the world will battle on Sunday for both the 2014 French Open trophy and the No. 1 ranking. 

    By his lofty standards, Nadal struggled through the clay-court season, losing in back-to-back quarterfinals in April. But he's looked like himself on the clay at Roland Garros, and he will try to win his ninth French Open title, his 14th major overall. 

    However, his opponent is no slouch. Djokovic is hungry to win his first title at Roland Garros and complete his Career Slam. 

    Be sure to set your alarm clocks for Sunday morning. This is not a match that you're going to want to miss.


Who Has the Historic Edge?

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    Nadal leads the head-to-head over Djokovic 22-19, with a 13-4 lead on clay courts. The two have met five times at the French Open, with Djokovic losing each time.

    However, their rivalry is far from one-way traffic. In fact, Djokovic has the momentum coming into this match, having won their last four meetings. Just last month at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 in Rome, Djokovic defeated Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the final. That match was on clay, and should give Djokovic a lot of confidence heading into this final.

    However, Nadal has taken Djokovic out of the French Open the last two years. They faced in the final in 2012, with Nadal winning 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5.

    Last year, the two faced off in an epic semifinal that Nadal barely won, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7. In that match, Djokovic led the final set 4-1 before Nadal was able to steer momentum back in his favor.

    So recent history suggest that Djokovic has the edge, but Roland Garros history gives it to Nadal. Something's gotta give. 


How Nadal Has Looked so Far at Roland Garros

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    Throughout this fortnight in Paris, Rafael Nadal has looked like, well, Rafael Nadal. 

    There were concerns about the Spaniard's clay-court form earlier in the season, when Nadal lost in consecutive weeks to David Ferrer in the quarterfinals of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters and to Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals of the Barcelona Open. 

    But those rough days look like ancient history right now.

    Nadal has dropped only one set through his first six matches at Roland Garros, and that was to David Ferrer in the quarterfinals. He has surrendered three games or fewer in 16 out of 19 sets, and made Andy Murray look lost in the semifinals. 

    His serve has been clicking, his forehand has been lethal and, while he has mentioned to the media that his back has been bothering him, he hasn't shown any ill effects in his movement. In short, he's looked pretty great.


How Djokovic Has Looked so Far at Roland Garros

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    Novak Djokovic looked pretty great throughout his first five matches at Roland Garros, dropping only one set to Marin Cilic along the way. 

    However, in his semifinal match against Ernests Gulbis, there were reasons for concern. Djokovic looked shaky throughout, spraying errors, showing signs of nerves and even smashing his racket to smithereens in the fourth set. 

    He admitted in his post-match on-court interview that he hadn't been feeling well, but didn't specify what the problem was. According to members of the media, including Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times, Djokovic seemed ill at the press conference.

    Overall, it was a pretty dismal display from the Serb, who was let off the hook by an equally subpar and less experienced Gulbis.

    If Djokovic wants a chance in the final, he needs to resemble the player that made Jo-Wilfried Tsonga look like an amateur in the fourth round, not the one that left fans shaking their heads in the semifinals.

Biggest X-Factors in the Final

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    It seems like the X-factors are always the same with these guys: health and nerves.

    Djokovic has gotten into Nadal's head before, and after four straight wins over his Spanish rival, including the one last month on clay, there's a possibility that Nadal won't be as confident against the Serb as his record at Roland Garros suggests he should be.

    But Djokovic has mental issues of his own to work out. He has not kept it a secret how much winning the French Open title would mean to him, and there's no doubt that to win the title with a win over Nadal in the final would be a huge boost to his legacy.

    As for health, Nadal's supposedly subpar back has been a nonfactor on court, but he hasn't been pushed yet this tournament. If the match goes long—which it likely will—that could be an issue. Meanwhile, Djokovic told Justin Gimelstob, via Randy Walker, "I started physically feeling not so great [during the third set].”

    Both are talented, but it's going to take mental and physical health to win this battle. 

Nadal Will Win If...

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    Nadal is going to have to play aggressively, especially with his forehand, if he wants to win his ninth French Open title.

    Often, Nadal can get pegged in the back of the court and roped into a defensive game plan that usually doesn't work out so well in matches against top players. He has to take control of the match against a player of Djokovic's caliber.

    He also has to work on keeping his backhand in check. In his quarterfinal match against David Ferrer, he was very disappointed in his backhand. Via, he told the press: 

    The battle for me was with my backhand to try and overcome this endless spiral I was trapped in to at last have a good forehand shot. When the balls were high and deep, I couldn’t play on my backhand. This is what happened throughout the first set.

    So controlled backhands, lethal forehands and aggression are Nadal's keys to victory. 

Djokovic Will Win If...

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    Novak Djokovic's keys to victory aren't all that different from Nadal's: He needs to stay aggressive and to dictate the rallies.

    Djokovic's defense is impressive, but it's simply not enough to beat Nadal on clay. The Spaniard moves too well on the surface and can cover too much of the court. The Serb has to search for chances to pull the trigger, and he has to take them. If he doesn't, Nadal will.

    The No. 2 player has to make sure that he finds his best shot, his backhand down the line, as well. That was the shot that was firing on all cylinders when Djokovic had a career season in 2011, but it has been hit or miss since. He will need all the tools at his disposal.

    Most of all, though, Djokovic just needs to feel healthy and let himself relax on the court. Somehow, some way, this needs to just be another match. 


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    In my opinion, this is the closest it's felt heading into a Rafole match on clay.

    Djokovic has played the better tennis throughout the year, and he certainly has the motivation and the inspiration to finally claim the trophy that has eluded him for so long. 

    However, Nadal has been improving every match during the clay season, and looks like he is peaking just in time. He knows that he is getting older and that these chances to play in a major final won't come along as often as they used to.

    I think that judging by their semifinal matches, Nadal has the edge both mentally and physically right now. Djokovic will fight—he always does—but Nadal will win this one in five sets, with the final set being a rout.

    Djokovic will have to wait at least one more year to complete his Career Slam.