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Beyond the Baseline

French Open men's final preview: Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic

Rafael Nadal is playing for his ninth -- NINTH -- French Open title. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) Rafael Nadal is playing for his ninth -- NINTH -- French Open title. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

PARIS -- There's always something big on the line when No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 2 Novak Djokovic meet.

Their rivalry is the most evenly matched in men's tennis. They've played each other an Open Era record 41 times, with Nadal holding a 22-19 edge. Since 2011, 16 of their 18 meetings have been in finals, with six of them coming at the Grand Slams.

On Sunday (Court Philippe Chatrier, 9 a.m. ET on NBC), Nadal is gunning for his ninth French Open title in 10 years, and  Djokovic is trying to complete his career Grand Slam by finally winning in Paris. The winner will come away with the No. 1 ranking. No pressure.

It's difficult to rely on recent trends to try and dissect how this match will play out. Djokovic has won the last four meetings but Nadal has won their last three contests at the Slams. Both men came into Paris with one European clay title under their belt this season -- Djokovic won his in Rome, where he overcame a slow start to pick apart Nadal en route to a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 win.

But Nadal is playing far better now than he was three weeks ago. He's lost just one set over six matches, and he's riding a huge wave of confidence after losing just six games to Andy Murray in the semifinals. He's stepping into his forehand and hitting it as big as he ever has. The doubts that clouded his game through much of the clay season have parted and he's back to his dominant form. Remember, in the ten years Nadal has competed at Roland Garros he has lost just once. He's currently on a 34-match win streak on Paris' red clay.

WERTHEIM: Robin Soderling, Rafael Nadal's clay-court conqueror, contemplating a return

There is, of course, the issue of pressure. Nadal believes the pressure will be on Djokovic, as the Serb is playing just his second French Open final. After all, Nadal has won this title eight times. He's done it before. Djokovic hasn't.

"He has the motivation to win Roland Garros for the first time for sure," Nadal said. "But at the same time, he has the pressure to win for the first time. I have the pressure that I want to win and the motivation that I want to win the ninth. So I don't see a big difference on that. I'm going to go on court with the same motivation than him.  I don't know if the same pressure than him. Probably we are in different situations."

"Of course pressure is there," Djokovic said. "Expectations are there. They are always present when you are playing on this level. But I'm trying to channel this energy into the right direction and not get carried away too much by the stress of the occasion."

Djokovic let the stress of the occasion affect him in their last meeting at Roland Garros in the 2013 semifinals. Djokovic found himself up a break in the final set and let off just enough to allow Nadal to fight back and win 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7.

"Knowing that I was that close to win against him the past two years gives me that reason to believe that I can make it this time," Djokovic said.

The other question for Djokovic is his health. He grew weary during his four-set win over Ernests Gulbis in the semifinal, and admitted that he struggled with the warm conditions, with temperatures around 80 degrees. That's not particularly hot for tennis (hello, Australian Open), but the players have spent much of the last month playing in cooler conditions. Djokovic sounded hoarse after the match, but didn't want to talk about it. The forecast for Sunday calls for rain in the morning before brightening up in the afternoon, with temperatures hovering in the upper 70s.

"There is nothing bothering me," he said. "Just the general fatigue that, you know, probably was influenced by conditions or other things that I felt today."

Novak Djokovic is motivated by the prospect of winning his career Grand Slam. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) Novak Djokovic is motivated by the prospect of winning his career Grand Slam. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The warm conditions will favor Nadal, not just because of Djokovic's struggles, but because his game literally takes off in the heat. His heavy topspin forehand flies off the court when it's hot, which earns him more short balls that he can terminate. Djokovic is the only player on tour that can execute on a gameplan to beat Nadal, which centers on Djokovic defending well on his backhand and firing the ball up the line to open up the court. That's the shot that has allowed him to beat Nadal 19 times. He also needs a very good serving day to earn some cheap holds. Their matches have almost always turned on who is able to assert himself. Djokovic has to be aggressive from the start to keep Nadal behind the baseline.

"It's a very wide and very big court," Djokovic said. "He likes to have that visual effect, as well, because it appears that he gets every ball back. He feels more comfortable when he plays on the bigger court. That's one of the reasons why he's so successful here."

Before the start of the tournament I picked Djokovic to win the title but based on what's happened over the last two weeks Nadal looks to be peaking at just the right time. A win here and he would become the first man in history to win nine titles at any Grand Slam event and move into a tie for second place with Pete Sampras for Slam titles at 14.

Prediction: Nadal in four sets.

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