Like Henin, Nadal has won three consecutive French Open championships and his bid for a fourth will have to go through Djokovic, the rapidly rising Serbian star who after winning his first major, the Australian Open, to start the year wants to emerge the King of Clay to keep alive a bid for a calendar Grand Slam, which would be the first since Rod Laver’s in 1969.
The Spaniard is No. 2 in the rankings, his opponent No. 3, but here on this dirt Nadal is No. 1. He’s never lost at Roland Garros -- now 26-0 and just two wins away from becoming the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1978-81 to win the French Open four consecutive times.
Just over two weeks ago in the Hamburg semifinals, Nadal and Djokovic treated tennis fans to three hours of brilliance and all-out fight on dirt. It was a display of both awesome and exhausting tennis. Nadal prevailed 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 as I believe he will again on Friday.
Nadal’s path to this collision has been ridiculously easy. He has yet to lose a set, playing past Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil and Nicolas Devilder of France, along with Jarkko Nieminen of Finland, Fernando Verdasco and his fellow countryman Nicolas Almagro. Even more impressive is that in seven of those sets he dropped but a single game.
Djokovic has had a more difficult row to hoe, including a 7-5, 7-6, 7-5 quarterfinal against Ernests Gulbis of Latvia. Denis Gremelmayr of Germany pushed him to four sets in the first round, but Miguel Angel Lopez Jaen of Spain, the only man in the game with four names, was quickly sent packing 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 in round two. After American Wayne Odesnik made things a bit more difficult in the third round, Djokovic was relentless in straight-setting French hopeful Paul-Henri Mathieu before facing Gulbis to reach his second consecutive Roland Garros semifinal.
It should be a good match and could be another great match like the one in Hamburg. But Nadal, who leads in career meetings 7-2, will win. He is 113-2 in his last 115 matches on dirt. He is the undisputed King of Clay and he’s not leaving his throne any time soon.
Djokovic will make it competitive, maybe make it much more competitive than his Spanish opponent would care for as he did in Hamburg. As much as Nadal went at Djokovic in Germany, grinding him down, the Serb fought right up until the end, saving four match points in the third set. Nadal-Djokovic, make no mistake, it has all the makings of an all-out war. And while Djokovic may win another set off Nadal, forcing the match to four sets, the Spaniard has too much pride and is in extremely good condition to beaten here.
When it comes to comparing strokes, it can’t be done. Each player hits the ball differently. As an example Nadal puts so much top on his forehand that he keeps the ball up around his opponent¹s shoulders. Djokovic hits his (forehand) flatter. It’s like the two guys are from different planets and when those planets collide the result can be captivating clay-court tennis.
Djokovic is, perhaps, the better volleyer, but he will have to make his way to the net to take advantage of that. He is going to have to work his way in because he isn’t going to win from the baseline. He can end up playing 15 shots and never getting a point. That’s what happened to Almagro against Nadal. He won a game in each set and didn’t play badly but he ended up laughing. It looked like he was trying to say, “What¹s going on?”
Djokovic will have to push Nadal around ¬and take chances. He will have to attack Nadal’s serve if there is an opportunity, while holding his own. He will be looking to see if he can work his way in. Nadal is susceptible to a low slice, but not many players today can execute that shot successfully against him. Opponents have to try to make Nadal bend –¬ drop shots may work because he plays so far back.
To say that Nadal is mentally a gritty guy is a Grand Slam of an understatement. He should have quit in his match in Rome last month against Juan Carlos Ferrero since his his wounded right foot with its blisters and cracks looked like a disaster area. But he played on, going down to defeat but falling on his terms, fighting the loss every painful step of the way.
Nadal is truly a great champion, who will face a truly formidable opponent in Djokovic. I can’t imagine the victor on the court will not be Nadal but the biggest winner without question is the sport itself.
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