PARIS — Here comes the French Open final almost everyone expected and – except for other players – wanted.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic, one victory from becoming the first man in 43 years to win four consecutive major championships, against No. 2 Rafael Nadal, one victory from becoming the only man to win seven titles at Roland Garros.
How’s that for high stakes?
Djokovic is undefeated in his past 27 Grand Slam matches, which includes beating Nadal in the finals at Wimbledon in July, the U.S. Open in September, and the Australian Open in January. Nadal has won 51 of 52 career matches at the French Open; only he and Bjorn Borg have won the clay-court tournament six times.
Never before have the same two men met in four Grand Slam finals in a row, so it’s apt that no matter who wins Sunday, his achievement will be monumental.
“I have this golden opportunity to make history. This motivates me. It really inspires me. I’m really grateful to be in this position, obviously,” said the 25-year-old Djokovic, who owns five Grand Slam titles to Nadal’s 10.
Both Djokovic and Nadal breezed through their semifinals Friday. If this stage of a Grand Slam tournament is supposed to provide a challenge, it did not – which probably isn’t all that stunning in Nadal’s case, but was rather striking when you consider Djokovic faced 16-time major champion Roger Federer and won 6-4, 7-5, 6-3.
“His mental state and preparation for this match was excellent,” said Djokovic’s coach, Marian Vadja, “and this has to happen against Rafa.”
Nadal found himself flying by the seat of his pants on one point against No. 6 David Ferrer, somehow winning the exchange despite falling on his rump. Otherwise, he was in control en route to 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 victory.
“I’m surprised,” said Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach, “because we were expecting a very difficult match against one of the best players in the world.”
Ferrer was playing in his third Grand Slam semifinal. He already won two clay-court titles this year. And it was Ferrer who upset Nadal in the 2011 Australian Open quarterfinals, stopping his bid for a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title – the milestone Djokovic now seeks.
Nadal won all 15 sets he’s played this year at Roland Garros, losing only 35 games, the lowest total for anyone reaching a major final since Borg lost 31 on his way to winning the 1980 French Open.
Nadal has won 71 of 72 service games, saving 18 of 19 break points.
Pretty close to perfect.
“I really don’t like to talk about perfection, because that, my opinion, doesn’t exist. You can always play better,” said the 26-year-old Nadal, whose only loss at the French Open came against Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. “But, sure, I am very happy the way that I am playing. Probably today was my best match of the tournament.”
With Ferrer serving at 1-1, 30-all in the second set, Nadal produced a masterpiece, turning a gaffe into a highlight.
During a point that lasted more than 30 shots, Nadal’s feet slipped out from under him as he sprinted toward the net. On the slow-motion replay, it’s easy to see that his eyes never left the ball, even as he crashed to the court. Suddenly sitting — yes, plopped on his backside, right there in the middle of the most important clay-court stadium in the world — Nadal raised his left arm to slice a backhand drop shot that prolonged the point and drew Ferrer forward.
As if that weren’t impressive enough, Nadal popped up like a jack-in-the-box in time for the next shot, a volley-lob that arced over Ferrer’s head and settled near the baseline. Ferrer, no slouch himself in the speed department, got to the ball, but his forehand landed in the net.
That gave Nadal a break point, and he converted it in much more conventional fashion, staying upright until Ferrer simply pushed a forehand long.
“Both of us were playing more or less the same type of tennis, but then he started to become more and more aggressive,” Ferrer said. “There was nothing I could do to fight back.”
Federer appeared to feel that way, too, particularly after Djokovic broke him four times in the second set.
At the start of that set, Federer actually appeared to get going. He broke to go ahead 1-0 in a game that featured a particularly compelling, 38-stroke point. Federer hit a drop shot that Djokovic slid and stretched to get, the ball an inch or so off the ground; Federer replied with a lob that sent Djokovic sprinting to the baseline for a no-look, back-to-the-net, between-the-legs passing shot; Federer knocked home a volley winner. Djokovic, chest heaving, smiled as he went to towel off.
A year ago in the French Open semifinals, Federer snapped Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak in a four-set thriller. On Friday, Vajda explained afterward, Djokovic was determined to play “extremely patient ... not rushing.”
Increasingly confounded by his opponent and the swirling wind, Federer made a very un-Federer-like 46 unforced errors. Djokovic made 17.
“I was struggling to sort of keep the ball in play,” said Federer, who is 30 and nearly 2Â½ years removed from his most recent major championship. “When you’re down two sets to love against Novak, it’s not the same match anymore. He goes for broke and there is no more fear.”
Asked to size up Sunday’s final, Federer didn’t hesitate.
“I obviously pick Rafa,” Federer said. “I think he’s the overwhelming favorite.”
If Djokovic wins his first French Open final, he will join Don Budge in 1938, and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969, as winners of four Grand Slam trophies in succession. Budge and Laver went 4 for 4 within a calendar year each time.
Federer twice came close to doing what Djokovic hopes to accomplish: In 2006 and 2007, Federer entered the French Open final needing one win for a fourth consecutive major title. Federer’s opponent each time? Nadal, naturally.
One significant difference: Federer is 10-18 against Nadal, including 2-6 in Grand Slam finals; Djokovic is 14-18 overall against Nadal, but 3-1 in Grand Slam finals.
Djokovic won all six matches he played against Nadal in 2011, then made it seven straight with their 5-hour, 53-minute epic final at the Australian Open. Nadal, though, has won their two meetings since, both on clay in May.
“There’s a lot on the line. It always is, when you’re playing finals of a Grand Slam,” Djokovic said. “Considering the matches that we played against each other in last 15 months, we expect another emotional match, another big challenge for both of us, fighting for one of the four biggest titles in our sport.”