Sunday, May 27, 2018
Sports

Nadal loves to spoil

PARIS — They have played 32 times. Their historical agendas are of similar heft. But Rafael Nadal will be on much more familiar ground than Novak Djokovic when they duel for this year's French Open men's title today.

That is not simply because Nadal is in his seventh French Open final and Djokovic in his first; not because Nadal grew up sliding on gritty red clay in Majorca while Djokovic cracked his first ground strokes on hardcourts painted green in the Serbian mountains.

It is because Nadal has already played the spoiler — respectfully, yet ruthlessly — in Paris.

In 2006 and 2007, Roger Federer, at the peak of his powers, was one victory from winning his first French Open and holding all four Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal shut him down in both finals.

Now it is Djokovic who is in his prime and a victory from becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four straight Grand Slam events. Again, Nadal is the roadblock and the rightful favorite.

"It's an ultimate challenge," Djokovic said Friday after beating Federer in straight sets in the semifinals. "But I believe that (Friday) was the best match of 2012 Roland Garros for me, so I've raised my game when I needed to.

"I played really well when it was the most important, so that's something that gives me confidence, obviously, before the finals."

Djokovic has beaten Nadal in the past three Grand Slam singles finals, including a 5-hour- 53-minute epic at this year's Australian Open.

"It's difficult to imagine another match of six hours," Nadal said Saturday. "But I will be there fighting for every ball. … The only thing I have to predict is that he is playing well, he is playing with confidence. And I have to play aggressive. I have to play my game."

In statistical and psychological terms, beating Nadal at Roland Garros is one of the toughest tasks in sports.

Nadal is 51-1 at the French Open, his only loss coming in the fourth round to Robin Soderling in 2009. Overall, Nadal's career winning percentage of 93 percent on clay (253-19) is the best of any leading player, including Bjorn Borg, the only other man to win six French Open titles.

And Nadal, clearly inspired by the Djokovic challenge, appears to be in dazzling form, even if his half of the draw was not as rough a neighborhood as Djokovic's half.

Nadal has not lost a set on red clay all year, his only stumble coming in quick, slippery conditions on blue clay in Madrid, where he squandered a lead against Fernando Verdasco. He already has beaten Djokovic this year on clay — once in Monte Carlo and then in Rome — as Djokovic struggled to find the same mix of acute angles and relentless consistency that had allowed him to beat Nadal seven times in a row.

If Nadal prevails, he will stand alone as a seven-time French Open men's champion, something Borg has been expecting for years. If Djokovic wins, he will, like Nadal and Federer, complete the career Grand Slam but, unlike Nadal and Federer, possess all four trophies at the same time.

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