Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are poised to have another classic match in the final of the 2014 French Open, and this time the King of Clay will reign.
Normally, it's by no means a stretch to say Rafa will win at Roland Garros. Nadal has come out on top in eight of the past nine French Opens, a run of dominance unmatched in the history of professional tennis. At this point, him winning in Paris is not so much an accomplishment as it is a formality.
When top-seeded Nadal faces No. 2 Djokovic, however, anything can happen. These are the two best players in the world right now, and Djokovic has the talent to beat Rafa in any given match, regardless of the surface on which it is played.
The Djoker has had the clear upper hand on Nadal of late. The last four times they have gone head-to-head, Djokovic has come out on top, including a victory on clay in their last meeting to win the Rome Open.
|China Open||Hard||Djokovic||6-3, 6-4|
|Barclays ATP World Tour||Hard||Djokovic||6-3, 6-4|
|Sony Open||Hard||Djokovic||6-3, 6-3|
|Rome Open||Clay||Djokovic||4-6, 6-3, 6-3|
If Nadal were just a touch less superhuman in clay play, Djokovic would have already completed his career Grand Slam, with last year's epic five-set final going his way instead of Rafa's. But Djokovic deserves a great deal of credit for making the King look even remotely beatable, much less doing so in Rome.
The real question is whether Djokovic can do the same thing at Roland Garros, and at this point in the 2014 tournament.
Though he got off the court in four sets (6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3) without any real threat of losing, Djokovic had to push surprisingly hard to get past No. 18 Ernests Gulbis. As Neil Harman of The Times noted, Djokovic looked physically off under the Paris sun, his mobility waning as the match progressed:
Warmest day of event by far. Djoko not moving well. Heavy in the legs. Gulbis has a chance here if he really believes.— Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes) June 6, 2014
Imagine how he would have fared then in the 2013 thriller, playing an extended fifth set against the all-time clay champ and one of the most mobile players in tennis history.
Now imagine if Djokovic shows up at less than 100 percent again and what will happen when he faces a Nadal playing at the top of his game.
Rafa advanced to the final by absolutely crushing No. 7 Andy Murray. Murray is legitimately one of the best players in the world, but he was powerless to do anything against Nadal, who breezed into the final with a straight-set victory (6-3, 6-2, 6-1).
From How-You-Like-Me-Now-Files::"I played my best match of the clay court season today," says Nadal in press. Well timed before #RG14 Final— ESPNTennis (@ESPNTennis) June 6, 2014
That's simply how Nadal treats tired opponents.
Murray had gone to five sets in two of his previous three matches, including a third-round match with Philipp Kohlschreiber that spanned two days of play. Djokovic has not reached that level of fatigue and is a better clay competitor, but he still enters the final at a notable disadvantage.
He has what it takes to beat Nadal, but only with a near-flawless performance. Djokovic is capable of that under ideal circumstances. Given the performances both men just delivered, these circumstances look something considerably less than that for him.
The final at Roland Garros is Nadal's comfort zone, which makes it hell for everyone else. He'll still get a solid match from Djokovic, but don't expect a repeat of last year's classic. Rafa will defend his title more easily this time.