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Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal: The preview

Rafa Nadal could win his tenth French Open. (AAP Image/Mark Dadswell)
Roar Pro
2nd June, 2015
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Time flies when you’re watching the tennis, doesn’t it? It feels like just over a week since Roland Garros kicked off, and yet here we are, with just two men remaining, preparing to battle it out in the final…

Wait a minute.

Yes, you could be forgiven for thinking the upcoming match between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal was Roland Garros’ last in 2015.

After all, since Djokovic’s otherworldly 2011 season, both he and the profusely sweating Majorcan have proved, for the most part, a class above all others on tour.

Of their last 20 clashes, 17 have been in finals. The other three? Semis.

Hence, the fact their 44th meeting (an unprecedented number in itself) is occurring in the quarter-final stages of a grand slam, particularly one where Nadal has lost one match over ten years, is mystifying.

But hey, no one’s complaining about getting their main course a little early.

The form
Djokovic’s frighteningly routine disposal of 20th seeded Richard Gasquet is as good a sign as any he’s ready for a true test, the impossibly flexible Serbian yet to drop a set at Roland Garros.

Nadal’s spluttering clay court season has finally gathered momentum, with relatively comfortable victories in the first three rounds, before fourth round opponent Jack Sock fought bravely in the third set before going down to Rafa in the fourth.

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When considering the form of Djokovic across the season, however, he cannot start as anything below an even chance against Rafa.

The elastic Serbian is on a 26-match winning streak, half of which have come on clay. He holds a 38-2 record for the year, seven of those matches contributing to his fifth Australian Open title, and eighth grand slam overall.

In contrast, Rafael Nadal has had an inconsistent season, the word ‘inconsistent’ being paired with Rafa shocking enough in itself.

He comes into Paris with a 25-9 record, ranked seventh, his worst position in a decade.

What’s more concerning than the loss count, however, is nearly half of them have come on clay, the surface on which he has dominated all rivals for almost 10 years. Furthermore, such losses have come against the ever-erratic Fabio Fogninni (twice) and fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, who Nadal led 13-1 prior to the defeat.

In spite of such recent form, perhaps what’s most relevant is his overall record at Roland Garros.

His record?

70-1.

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But more on that in the intangibles section.

The history
With an unprecedented 43 match back catalogue, the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry is already the most prolific in the Open era (1968-present).

Many scoffed at Djokovic back in 2006, when, after their first meeting, Djokovic retired with an injury two sets to love down… Then proceeded to declare Rafa “was beatable on clay”.

Up until 2011, his claims were just that, claims. But his transformation into the ever-consistent world number one we know today brought with it victories over Nadal on clay, the most recent being a 6-3 6-3 drubbing at the Monte Carlo Masters in April.

But one stat remains considerably foreboding for the Serb. Against Novak at Roland Garros, Rafa is 6-0.

Furthermore, Nadal leads 14-5 on clay, although it should be noted that since 2011 the H2H on this surface stands at five apiece.

It should also be noted this rivalry is one of the streakiest in recent memory. One of the two tends to get out ahead for a stretch, before the other is forced to lift their game to higher levels in order to reverse the trend, their rivalry akin to Newton’s cradle in its tendency to swing back and forth.

From the start of 2011, these are the streaks of each player in the rivalry:

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Djokovic – 7 wins
Nadal – 3 wins
Djokovic – 1 win
Nadal – 3 wins
Djokovic – 4 wins
Nadal – 1 win
Djokovic – 1 win*
* = yet to end

Alas, history would suggest it’s Djokovic’s turn to get a streak going.

But Nadal does have a history of defying expectation…

The game plan
For all of Nadal’s athletic ability and shot-making prowess, this match will be decided by Djokovic.

Though it may sound a tad simplistic, Djokovic’s backhand is the barometer. While Nadal usually has a field day with his vicious lefty forehand crosscourt (often to a righty’s weaker backhand), this has remained Djokovic’s best stroke from the moment he stepped on a tennis court.

The down-the-line backhand, in particular, is the game changer for the Serb. Look for Novak to push Nadal out wide with a backhand crosscourt before sending a backhand down the line to utilise the open court and play straight into Rafa’s backhand.

Djokovic has, and will continue to use, the following tactics to optimise his chances of success against Nadal:

A- Hit to his backhand
B- Hit to his backhand
C- Hit to his backhand
D- For a bit of variety, hit to his backhand

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For Rafa to combat this, his options are quite simple:

A – Play aggressive
B – Play aggressive
C – Play aggressive
D – All of the above

Sure, it sounds simple enough. But against Novak, arguably the best returner on tour, Nadal needs to ensure he can take control of more points, eliciting defensive shots from the Serb, allowing Rafa to run around a potential backhand and turn it into a blistering forehand. Rinse and repeat.

Djokovic is more than happy to engage in forehand to backhand rallies with Nadal, and will likely win a clear majority of them, so Nadal utilising his snarling forehand at every opportunity is key to his chances of success.

Of course, also key to Nadal’s chances of success are…

The intangibles
70-1.

70 wins and 1 loss.

For every loss Nadal’s had at Roland Garros, he has won 70 times.

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You get the picture.

No man has ever dominated a slam like Rafael Nadal has Roland Garros. The Coupe de Mousquetaires (the French Open trophy) and Rafa have been together so often that Rafa’s girlfriend must be getting suspicious.

Regardless of his indisputable form slump, Rafa saves his best for this tournament each and every year, and the remarkable record he has established has to give him an enormous amount of confidence.

Of course, Novak is nothing if not a streak spoiler. The head-to-head record between the two provides ample evidence of this, Novak cutting a once 16-7 H2H lead for Nadal to a 23-20, a mere three games behind the once indomitable Rafa.

Novak has made no secret of the fact this is his most coveted title, the one piece missing from an already illustrious puzzle. Also on offer for him, should he win the tournament, is the achievement of becoming only the eighth man to complete the career Grand Slam (win all four grand slams at least once).

While this can prove a point of extreme motivation for Novak, it can also prove an achilles heel to a man whose defining strength is not seeming to have one at all.

Indeed, the pressure Novak puts on himself to succeed here has the potential to prove his downfall. It’s no coincidence that the closest Novak has come to beating Nadal at the French Open was in a semi, where he went down 7-9 in the fifth. It’s also no coincidence that, a year later in the final, Novak went down convincingly to Rafa (6-3, 5-7, 2-6, 4-6).

The enormous pressure Novak puts on himself is compounded by the stage of the tournament he’s competing in, and so a quarter-final meeting with Nadal is more than desirable for him, particularly when considering Rafa is a player who works himself into tournaments before peaking at its final stages.

The verdict
Novak Djokovic is arguably playing the best tennis of his career, his game as impenetrable as ever. Rafael Nadal goes in, remarkably given his record, the underdog, but when it comes to taking on the toughest proposition in men’s tennis, there are none more up for the challenge than Nadal.

Overall, the match is on Djokovic’s racquet and, while in the past he has been susceptible to mental pressure, this being the quarter-final rather than the final will go a long way toward Djokovic approaching this match as he would any other, even if his opponent isn’t like any other.

Prediction
Djokovic in four.

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