Novak Djokovic reached the final by downing Roger Federer in the semis. (REAU ALEXIS/SIPA)
Can Novak Djokovic pull off the unthinkable? No, I'm not talking talking about winning the French Open to complete his career Slam and become the first player in the Open Era to hold all four majors since Rod Laver. That feat somehow takes the backseat to an even simpler question: Can Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in Paris? To quote my Magic 8 Ball, all signs point to no.
Djokovic and Nadal will meet for the 33rd time on Sunday, contesting their fourth straight Slam final. Djokovic is riding a 27-match win streak at the Slams, having beaten Rafa in the finals of Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, the last being a near six-hour epic that galvanized Nadal's confidence. He may have lost, but Rafa walked away feeling like he had closed the gap on Djokovic and found some tactics that worked. Sure enough, once he was back on his beloved clay (the red stuff, not the blue) Nadal's confidence was firmly intact. He snapped his seven match losing streak to Djokovic in Monte Carlo and beat him again a few weeks in later in Rome, failing to drop a set. Nadal seems to have wrenched back control of their rivalry -- at least on clay -- and while Novak's 2011 wins signaled a sea change among the men's elite, Nadal has brought us back to the status quo. It all comes to a head on Saturday with Djokovic trying to continue his remarkable career transformation by snagging his fourth straight title and first at Roland Garros, whereas Nadal will shoot to win Roland Garros for the seventh time in his career, which would give him sole ownership of the record for most French Open titles.
This isn't the first time the No. 1 ranked player will go into the Roland Garros final on a quest to complete the career Grand Slam as a legitimate underdog. Nadal snuffed out Federer's three bids from 2006 to 2008, and in his most dominant campaign in 2008, where he didn't lose a set for the tournament and lost a mere 41 games, he demolished Federer in the final, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. Nadal is already on pace to best his 2008 campaign. Once again he hasn't lost a set through six matches and he's only lost 35 games (at this stage he lost 37 in 2008). On court he has looked as devastating as ever, if not more so.
That's an ominous combination for Djokovic. He hasn't played his best over his last two matches, though he still has the amazing ability to raise his level when he absolutely needs to. All you need to look to are the four match points he saved against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and his ability to climb back from 0-3 down in the second set to Federer, break him when he was serving for the set, and eventually sneak out the set and the match. There is no one in the game who is more dangerous when his back is against the wall.
In fact, that's precisely why Djokovic has a fighting chance here. To the extent a player who is going for a fourth straight Slam title can have nothing to lose, Novak really doesn't. Few expect him to win here (he's never taken a set from Nadal in Paris) and making the finals by beating Federer was an accomplishment in and of itself. If he comes out focused, swinging freely, and returning well, he's shown that he has the ability to get the match on his terms, even on clay. But he has to get his returns deep and he has to be able to hammer his forehands and backhands down the line to get Nadal on the run. Rafa's been very good about staying on the baseline during these two weeks. It's up to Djokovic to try and bully him off it with depth, power, and angles.