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Beyond the Baseline

French Open men's final preview: Ferrer faces ultimate challenge against Nadal

Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer Rafael Nadal (left) is 16-1 on clay against fellow Spaniard David Ferrer. (Getty Images)

The men's French Open final will feature the Spaniard, seven-time champion Rafael Nadal, and the other Spaniard, first-time Grand Slam finalist David Ferrer. This is the first all-Spanish final at Roland Garros since 20th-seeded Albert Costa surprised 10th-seeded Juan Carlos Ferrero in 2002. Is another upset in the cards for Sunday?

Uh, no. Sorry.

Nadal, 27, is seeking his eighth French Open title in nine appearances. The third seed improved to 58-1 at Roland Garros by rallying from a break down in the fifth set to defeat No. 1 Novak Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 in the semifinals on Friday. He advanced to his 17th major final, seven shy of Roger Federer's record of 24.

Ferrer, meanwhile, is playing the best tennis of his career at age 31. He's made the semifinals in four of the last five majors, and the industrious fourth seed took the next step on Friday by dismissing France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-1, 7-6 (3), 6-2. Ferrer hasn't dropped a set in six matches in Paris. Regardless of what happens on Sunday, the fifth-ranked Ferrer will pass the fourth-ranked Nadal in the rankings on Monday.

Ferrer has the utmost respect for his dominant compatriot.

"Of course it's difficult to beat him," Ferrer said after his semifinal win. "He's the best in clay court."

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Ferrer would know, because Nadal has won 16 of their 17 matches on clay; the older Spaniard's only victory on the surface came in their first career meeting, in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2004. (Nadal leads the overall head-to-head 19-4.) The 11-time major champion pummeled Ferrer 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 in the French Open semifinals last year.

"I think you can win a set against Rafa, but there is a difference between winning a set and winning a match," Ferrer said before that loss. "Winning a match against Rafa is almost impossible. He is in such good shape."

Ferrer isn't expecting an edge in conditioning this year, either, even though Nadal is coming off a four-hour, 37-minute marathon against Djokovic in his second career five-setter at Roland Garros.

"He's going to recover, sure," Ferrer said. "He's the best [physically], no?"

Ferrer, a grinder, is relentlessly consistent from the baseline and one of the best returners on tour. But Ferrer lacks the heavy-duty artillery needed to rattle Nadal. The forehand is Ferrer's biggest offensive weapon, and he's beaten Nadal on quicker courts where that shot can pick up speed. But the clay mitigates its power, and Ferrer can't hit it flat enough consistently enough to hurt Nadal, who reminded everyone on Friday just how quickly he can turn defense into offense during a point.

WERTHEIM: Nadal protects his turf

The biggest concern for Nadal will simply be his recovery. His win over Djokovic was emotional and physically taxing. He's played more top-level matches on clay than anyone this spring. But with his eighth French Open title in sight, a letdown isn't likely.

"Well, 100 percent sure I don't feel like this," Nadal said when asked if he felt invincible in Paris. "But, yes, the last nine years was amazing what I did playing on all surfaces, but especially when I am playing on a clay court. And here is the most special tournament on clay, so I think playing best-of-five helps for the best players. Best-of-five helps because you can have mistakes and you have the chance to come back."

Though Ferrer comes into the final well-rested, the best-of-five format will severely undermine his chances of pulling off an upset. In their last two meetings, on clay in Rome and Madrid, Ferrer was able to win a set before succumbing in three. In other words, Ferrer has had his chances, and he's narrowed the gap with Nadal at ATP tournaments. But when he had Nadal on the ropes in both those matches, he couldn't score the knockout. There's no shame in that. Few men can. But doing it over five sets is an even taller order, given that Nadal is 81-1 in best-of-five matches on clay in his career.

"As long as I haven't got the trophy in my hands, I'm not thinking about anything else," Nadal said.  "Even though today I'm very happy, because I think that so far I have played an excellent tournament and I have reached these finals, which is amazing to me. But my objective is to continue 100 percent."

Prediction: Nadal in three sets. 

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