This is what we wanted. This is what we always want, the best against the best.
Across the globe, this is what we have: San Antonio Spurs against Miami Heat, New York Rangers against the Los Angeles Kings and, for the final of a French Open full of twists, turns and rain delays, Rafael Nadal against Novak Djokovic.
It was inevitable, wasn’t it? Nadal, the King of Clay, the eight-time champion at Roland Garros, facing Djokovic, The Joker, who has won the other three Grand Slams—Australia, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open—but never the French, very much Nadal’s domain.
Nadal, the Spaniard, with his swashbuckling, clay-in-the-face style, a man who batters a tennis ball like Muhammad Ali did opponents, and Djokovic, the Serb, who seemingly tracks down every shot within the grounds and turns matches into marathons—like that five-hour, 53-minute final of the 2012 Australian Open when he beat Rafa.
But in the only time Djokovic made it as far as a final at Roland Garros, in 2012, it was Nadal who ended up the winner. Since he first entered the French Open in 2005, Rafa has been dominant—winning that year and every year except 2009.
Nadal, who turned 28 this week, is No. 1 in the ATP rankings, No. 1 in the French Open seeding. Djokovic, 27, is No. 2 in the rankings, No. 2 in the seeding.
A month ago, Andre Agassi called Nadal the finest player of all time, ahead of Roger Federer, ahead of Rod Laver, ahead of Bill Tilden and Don Budge. Strong stuff, but how will Rafa do Sunday against Djokovic?
He did well enough on Friday in his semifinal against Andy Murray, the Scot, winning 6-3, 6-2, 6-1, and notice the decline in games for Murray, the Wimbledon champ. Djokovic had to work a bit more against Ernests Gulbis of Latvia, 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, yet it’s the result that matters, not how it’s achieved.
Djokovic, in the post-match press conferences, emphasized what everyone knows: Nadal is within a fortress that has been virtually impenetrable. Rafa’s career record at the French is a remarkable 65-1, and against Djokovic is 5-0 going back to the '06 quarterfinals.
"I’m going to try and be aggressive,” said Djokovic, “because that is the only way I can win against him. I know that this is the court he’s most dominant on. He has lost only one time in his career.”
At Roland Garros, he means, and that was to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009.
Yes, anything’s possible. Tiger Woods shooting 81 in the British Open, Appalachian State beating Michigan in football and Robin Soderling defeating Rafael Nadal in the French. Yet once is an aberration, not an indication.
“This,” reminded Djokovic of Nadal, “is where he plays his best.”
Still, Djokovic expressed some self-confidence when he added, “Knowing I was that close to a win against him here the past two years, gives me reason to believe I can make it this time.”
Nadal grew up on the clay courts of the island of Majorca and understands the requirements of the surface. But he adapted, winning on hard courts and finally the grass at Wimbledon.
A left-hander like John McEnroe, Nadal has a wicked serve that spins wildly on clay. He's also known for chasing down balls in the corner and turning them into points.
Nadal has 13 major championships, four short of Federer’s record but only one fewer than Pete Sampras, who could never solve the mysteries of clay. Djokovic has six major titles.
Djokovic was in control against Gulbis, a friend as well as a rival who finished with 44 errors. In the other semi, Nadal never gave Murray an opening. “Today I played better than Andy,” said Nadal, stating the obvious. “Andy made a few mistakes, especially on his return. I played well. I succeeded in developing my strategy.”
Which was to move Murray around, and move himself into the last round.
“For me,” said Nadal, “the only motivation is Roland Garros.” He was referring to the tournament as the French do, by the name of the stadium complex where it is played in Paris.
“Doesn’t matter five in a row, four or one. For me, always when I have a chance to win Roland Garros is a special thing.”
It would be special for Djokovic, who would join Nadal, Federer, Agassi and several others as champion of all four majors. To do that, however, he has to defeat Rafael Nadal.
No. 1 against No. 2, the great Nadal against the great Djokovic. What could be better than to find out in the 2014 French Open who is better? C’est magnifique.
Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.