In a year that all but seems locked up to be Novak Djokovic's coming-out party, the tennis world seems to be forgetting about two members of the tennis "triumvirate"—Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
The assignment for this article was just sitting in a pool among other (unsavory) projects, because if you've been watching tennis at all this year, you know chances are Novak Djokovic is going to end up in the final at Roland Garros this year...
Unfortunately for Djokovic, starting the season an undefeated 41-0 and winning the Italian Open wasn't enough to merit a No. 1 seeding at Roland Garros this season, but it did help him get a No. 2 seed and a pretty rough draw (not as rough as Nadal's, however, which may involve a Robin Soderling QF matchup.)
We'll look at the two biggest impediments to Federer and Nadal making it to the final this year, and well, why I believe Federer and Nadal are fated to meet each other in the final this year.
There's a lump in my throat.
I am a notorious night owl; I enjoy the still of night and hearing Neil Everett make the same punchlines on SportsCenter over and over, but the fact stands that I am a world-class insomniac.
Of course, since I'm late to sleep, I'm a little late in waking up. You have to hand it to a law firm that hires me and allows me to come into work by 10 A.M. and understands that my body clock is permanently destroyed as a result of a daily caffeine intake exceeding 800 mg (for those of you keeping score, that's roughly 12 shots of espresso).
You're thinking, "Wait, what does this have to do with the French Open?" I'll show you.
Here's a list of things that can make me wake up at 6 A.M. (the projected P.S.T. start time for the French Open final):
Having to use the restroom, before promptly returning to sleep.
My house being on fire.
That about sums it up—unless you count the following:
The Men's finals at The Championships, Wimbledon 2008: I woke up bleary-eyed, took a world-record seven minutes to get ready for church (four of them in front a television) and practically had an anxiety attack while the preacher spoke as slowly as he possibly could to get me out the door. I incessantly badgered one of my friends with a smartphone (by the way, in 2008 smartphones were still for businessmen) for score updates.
I managed to catch the final set and my heart shattered as Federer's final shot slapped the net. To this day, I cite that day in passing as "the worst day of my life." A lot of horrible things have happened to me in the world of sports, but that day was the day I knew Roger Federer wasn't the best player in the world.
If Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal meet in the final this year at Roland Garros, I'll set the alarm clock for 5 A.M.—and this time, I'll skip church.
(Pictured) "Yo Rafa, I'm really happy for you and I'mma let you finish, but I'm still the greatest tennis player of all time."
Federer and Nadal have a way-too-canny mutual respect for each other as a result of having what many call one of the "greatest rivalries in sports," and probably the greatest rivalry in the history of tennis.
For years, Nadal and his youthful, balls-out style had Federer's number on clay and Federer had...well, everybody else's number on every other surface including clay. They're both wonderful sportsmen, classy gentlemen and the two faces of tennis blah, blah, blah, boring.
Does getting routinely spanked on a surface against the same opponent constitute a rivalry? Well it does for the same people who consider Roddick vs. Federer a "rivalry," but not really.
This is no McEnroe-Lendl, as the lack of racquet throwing, passive-aggressive trash-talking and the absence of me clapping like a seal and cackling like a crackhead would suggest. Tennis is far removed from the days of talking trash and boorish American behavior (trust me, I revel in those moments of boorishness like every other American), but when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga openly suggests he would go fishing with Rafael Nadal, I have to throw up in my mouth, a little bit.
Tennis has great sportsmanship, which is great, but all these guys being buddy-buddy is seriously killing me.
Federer-Nadal, in some ways, falls victim to that whole "being sportsmen" thing (apparently they're great friends off the court and ambassadors of the sport—hold on, I keep hitting the snooze button) but this "friendly rivalry" so to speak could be something else, something a tad more spicy:
The world's most abusive bromance.
Imagine, for a moment:
Enter two of the greatest players ever to play tennis, at a bar following the French Open final c. 2005
Federer: Hi Rafa, how are you?
Rafa: I'm good, just beat the best player in the world en route to my first ever Grand Slam, no big deal. How about you, Roger?
Federer: Oh, I'm good, just realized I'm going to win pretty much every major tournament outside of France for the next three years.
Rafa: Oh, yeah?
Nadal looks at Federer with an "I don't think so" look, while Federer stares deep into the eyes of Nadal. "Who is this guy?" Federer says to himself, "and why does he think he can beat me?"
They stare into each other's eyes...
The rest is history, as they say. I just realized this isn't a valid reason for why Nadal and Federer will meet in the French Open final...but I have a feeling you understand.
Janko Tipsarevic (3R)
This match will be Federer's first Grand Slam matchup against Tipsarevic since their epic meeting at the 2008 Australian Open, where Tipsarevic threw the kitchen sink at Federer. Federer wiped the sweat off after a grueling, four-hour 27-minute ordeal and avoided making history for all the wrong reasons.
Federer and Tipsarevic have met one other time since that epic matchup: in the round of 16 at Basel, where Federer brushed Tipsarevic off 6-3, 6-3. Expect a similar result this time around.
Nikolay Davydenko (3R)
The so-fashioned (OK, the all-time consensus) King of Clay has to face Nikolay Davydenko in the third round this time around and just in case you haven't been keeping score, Davydenko absolutely gagged and chained Nadal in Doha earlier this year, 6-3 6-2.
That said, Nadal should have a decided advantage when it comes to clay...or so one should hope. Nadal's strong track record on clay is all he has to fall back on. Oh, and the fact that he's the current world No. 1—that too.
I'm not going to predict anything other than a Nadal victory, for obvious reasons.
Federer's early exit via Richard Gasquet notwithstanding, he hasn't had much trouble dispatching early rounds, as evidenced by his stomping of Lopez and Texeira in Rounds 1 and 2, respectively.
Tipsy might prove to be a slight challenge, but Federer also touts exemplary records against both countryman Stanislas Wawrinka and hometown favorite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: a combined 12-2, to be exact, with neither of those losses coming within the past two years.
Now, I love Tsonga as much as the next guy (he's got a great sense of humor about himself, and plays his heart out), but Roger Federer is clearly still in a league entirely his own compared to both Tsonga and Wawrinka, so don't expect Federer to add any losses to the above record anytime soon.
Pictured: Robin Soderling sent Rafa packing in 2009 and has enjoyed consistency as of late, earning him a spot in the ATP top five and forcing his way into discussion as a possible contender...but no one contends with the unbridled fury bubbling within Rafael Nadal. And something tells me Nadal won't be wearing hot pink this time around.
"No one remembers defeats, in the long run. People remember victories, so I have to move forward."
That's what he said; Nadal, two years ago at Roland Garros when Robin Soderling defeated him in the French Open semifinals and sent him home a week early from Roland Garros for the first time in four years.
Of course, Nadal might have forgotten he ever gave us the quote up there after he pretty much effaced Soderling's will to continue living at Roland Garros last year (and we should expect nothing different this year), but something tells me Nadal is still angry, and yes, Nadal is still going to bury those cock-a-roaches en route to the final.
But a major roadblock stands in his way...
(Pictured) Andy Murray's supporters have seen this face way too many times. Chances are, they'll see it again this year at Roland Garros.
This is an underrated rivalry that has been taken for granted for quite some time in the tennis community, but Murray's calculated skill combined with Rafa's raw energy has made for some entertaining matches.
Andy Murray has sent Rafael Nadal home on multiple occasions, including the 2010 Australian Open (where Nadal retired) and the 2008 U.S. Open. Although Nadal holds a 10-4 record all-time against Murray and Nadal is the worldwide-consensus King of Clay...what am I saying?
Murray's never made it out of the quarterfinal at Roland Garros, and no, no matter how many times the world has these "Andy Murray's finally starting to get it!" moments (only to have Murray shoot them down with lapses in confidence, stamina and well, testicular fortitude in general), he certainly isn't going to "get it" on clay against Rafael Nadal—unless Murray has some sort of 300km/h serve that we don't know about.
Come on, you know it's true.
Even Roger Federer told Nole's family to be quiet (get a load of that top-rated comment, by the way. It's a classic), and it's quite obvious why: The Djokovic clan is one of the most-hated families in tennis, and their son is the poster child of everything Roger and Rafa hate—boorish chest-pounding, excessive celebration, talking trash in the media and whining like a little girl about losses.
His family has done nothing to dissuade the notion that Novak Djokovic is some rabble-rousing "entitled" child, even going so far as to declare "The King is Dead" when their son ousted Federer in the 2008 Australian Open.
This year, now that Djokovic has finally started to win consistently, it seems he's lightened up in the face of the media. That said, old impressions die hard for this fan and, as I'm sure, countless others. Many fans still remain on the fence about this still-brief era of Nole's dominance, and his worthiness as a No. 1 despite the mere continued existence of Nadal and Federer is a debate that will continue regardless of whether Djokovic wins at Roland Garros, all the way through Wimbledon.
Don't be so quick to crown him a champion at Roland Garros just yet; this is clay, a totally different game, and two men have owned clay since 2005. Neither of them are named Novak Djokovic, but provided things go as planned, Nole will meet one of them in the semifinals.
(Video) It takes a little bit to get through, but skip forward to 1:30, where Federer talks about Djokovic "retiring." Oh, the passive-aggressiveness just makes me feel so warm and chocolatey inside.
I am salivating. This is one of those "set the alarm" matches.
Forget what the Academy Award-worthy smiles, diplomacy and "sportsmanship" tell you.
Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic HATE each other. And I love it. I'm giggling like a little girl right now because if this ends up being the semifinal match, I'll wake up to watch it at whatever ungodly hour of the day it happens to be on.
This is the biggest roadblock standing between Federer and the finals, and rightfully so; Novak Djokovic has been on an absolute tear this season, improving to 41-0 just yesterday and he presumably will be 44-0 by the time he makes the semifinal at Roland Garros.
Nothing is going to give Roger Federer more pleasure than absolutely destroying Novak Djokovic, so expect a competitive intensity of NBA Finals-worthy proportions.
Keys to Federer Winning the Match
Federer has to take advantage of the slower, clay surface to set his feet and prepare his shots, and when he does:
Federer MUST hit his strokes with a surgeon's accuracy. Deferring to slices and drops and attempting to close ground against a quick opponent like Djokovic is perilous behavior. There is no margin for error against opponents like Djokovic. No more shots slapping the net or missing the line; Federer must play much more defensively and force Djokovic to take bad shots.
At this point in their respective careers, Federer is not as nimble as he'd like to be and Djokovic is just about fast enough to be more than Federer can handle. Federer cannot outlast the new, admittedly much-improved Djokovic, although if he can somehow bring out the dog in Djokovic (the one who retires due to sore throat), he can certainly destroy Djokovic's desire to win.
I'll be frank with you: Ever since Novak Djokovic stormed in and made men's single tennis a triumvirate (as opposed to the previous duopoly model), he's been shaking things up and confusing all of us.
However, there's one thing that isn't confusing: Novak Djokovic is a monster. He's an awesome player, and despite the fact that Rafa and Roger fans love him about as much as the city of Cleveland loves LeBron James, you have to admit that fresh blood is good for tennis every once in a while...right?
Trust me, if I could watch a 2006 Federer vs. a 2008 Nadal every year for the rest of my life, split Roland Garros and Wimbledon in some form or fashion, I would die a happy tennis fan. There are some forms of playing tennis that are just too wonderful to describe and some rivalries in tennis that transcend sport. Federer and Nadal is one of those rivalries.
Just because it isn't between two Americans (Agassi-Sampras), or even one American vs. player X (McEnroe-Lendl) doesn't mean it's a bad rivalry. Tennis is a beautiful sport, and when raised to the form that Nadal and Federer play, it becomes art—an expression of anguish, torment, triumph, survivalist will and so many things that make this game so beautiful to watch.
So what if, at this pace, Novak Djokovic is going to be No. 1 in the world? In my opinion, it's better for tennis for that transition to be as slow as possible, so that as many people possible can appreciate the history that's being made between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
So that people can tell their grandchildren they remember when Nadal ousted Federer from the French Open every time, but how Federer got his revenge at the 2007 Wimbledon final, or how they remember exactly what they were doing when they saw Federer slap that final forehand against the canvas in the 16th set in cool English dusk in 2008.
This is history, people. Let's appreciate it while it's happening, before it finally fades away for good.