It’s not about money. It’s about sending a message.
The rivalry between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal is just another in a long line of back-and-forths. Well, it is and isn’t.
These two have squared off against one another 41 times, with Nadal having the slight edge 22-19. The Djoker, however, has won the past four matches against Nadal. Most importantly, he won the last match—the Rome Masters final—on clay.
Sunday’s 42nd meeting, with the French Open championship on the line, is the most ever by any pair of pros. It is more than Federer and Nadal met and more than Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Djokovic and Nadal will face each other for the 12th time in a Grand Slam. That’s also a record.
“Well, we know each other very well," Nadal told USA Today.
Djokovic has defeated Nadal on clay four times, but he hasn’t defeated Nadal on the French Open clay. It’s a different clay altogether—maybe not physically, but certainly between the ears.
Djokovic has won four Australian Opens, one Wimbledon and one U.S. Open. What’s eluding the Djoker is the French crown. It’s the same title that eluded the great Roger Federer for years when a pesky, spunky, scrappy, capri-wearing Spaniard came along and made it so hard on Switzerland’s finest to complete the career Grand Slam.
Federer eventually did it, but you know what? Federer didn’t beat Nadal to win his French Open. Sure, he beat the man who beat Nadal, but it wasn’t Federer who went down into the valley and slung a rock at Goliath’s forehead.
Djokovic has a chance to slay his rival and earn the title that has eluded his grasp since he turned pro in 2003.
"I'm going to have the ultimate challenge on clay across the net," said Djokovic of Nadal, who is 65-1 in Paris. "We all know how successful he is. But I have to believe and I have to try to win it."
Djoker is 0-5 at Roland Garros against Nadal. Ever get a gnat stuck in your ear? It’s kind of like that, one would think.
A loss for Djokovic is more than an ‘L’ in his career loss column. At this point, being a pro for 11 years, winning six Grand Slams and 44 titles overall, it’s time to start thinking about legacy. Athletes of this caliber are just one roll of the ankle, one pop of a ligament away from seeing their best days in the rear-view.
Djoker has a chance to win the title now against the one person that would make it all the sweeter.
There’s also the sense that Nadal is just messing with Djokavic. It’s a bit of gamesmanship, but it’s also the truth.
"Probably he will come to the match mentally a little bit better than me because he beat me the last four," said Nadal in USA Today. "But at the same time, my feeling is I am doing the things better and I am playing better again, so that's a positive feeling for me."
There’s undoubtedly a lot of pressure on Djokavic—self-imposed, yes, but pressure no less. The French is the one championship he needs to cement his greatness in the pantheon of men’s tennis in the Open era. Like Tantalus reaching for the fruits that always pull away, the French Open pulls away at the hands of Nadal, and Djoker knows it.
"Obviously, Novak would like to win the one he is missing,'' Djokovic's coach, Marian Vajda, told the Associated Press (via Yahoo Sports). ''So all these hopes ... make him more tense than usually you see him. But I think [the semifinals] helped him to release it.''
Djokovic and Nadal have played sharp tennis over the past two weeks. Djoker dropped just two sets all tournament, and Nadal lost only one.
Djokovic slipped slightly in the semis and needs to reclaim the form from his win in the fourth round when he defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-1, 6-4, 6-1. Regaining that edge and squashing the pressure of the moment are of paramount importance.
The Djoker’s got money—over $61 million in earnings—but now it’s time to send a message. Nadal may have something to say about that.
"He has the motivation to win Roland Garros for the first time, for sure. But at the same time, he has the pressure to win for the first time,'' Nadal said. ''I have the pressure that I want to win—and the motivation that I want to win—the ninth.''
That’s called twisting the knife.