Saturday 3 December 2016

'King of Clay' Rafa Nadal stands between Djokovic and the holy grail

Simon Briggs

Published 03/06/2015 | 02:30

The ‘King of Clay’ Rafael Nadal
The ‘King of Clay’ Rafael Nadal

The French Open's accountants must be wishing their TV coverage worked on a pay-per-view model, such is the scale of excitement surrounding the quarter-final today between Novak Djokovic, the world No1, and the defending champion Rafael Nadal. This is surely destined to be 'le crunch' of the season, the Mayweather-Pacquiao of tennis.

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The plotlines are irresistible. It is the King of Clay against the unbreakable man; Nadal's nitro-glycerine-forehand against Djokovic's frictionless footwork.

There is no tougher task in sport than defeating Nadal at a venue he has made his own. The only man to achieve it is Robin Soderling, the big-hitting Swede who has since been forced off the tour by a combination of glandular fever and post-viral fatigue. So while this might be 'only' a quarter-final, the ramifications will be felt all year.

Should Djokovic become the second man to interrupt Nadal's 70-1 win-loss record at Roland Garros, he will surely believe that he can go on to complete the calendar Grand Slam, which has not been achieved since Rod Laver did it in 1969.

The calendar Slam is the holy grail of tennis, and in the view of three-time French Open champion Mats Wilander it is the one achievement that could catapult Djokovic on to the same plane of popular regard as Nadal and Roger Federer.

Room

"I don't know if there is room in the hearts of people for another person at the same time," Wilander said. "Novak's best chance of being as popular as those two is if he wins the four majors in one year and then keeps going.

"No 1 in the world is not interesting: it makes no difference because Nadal is hurt six months of the year, and Federer has four kids. You can become No 1 at some 250-point event and nobody notices, so it's not necessarily what these guys are playing for. They're playing for majors."

The analogy with Mayweather-Pacquiao has its merits, especially as boxing and tennis have more in common than you might think. Yet one significant difference lies in the regularity with which the big names face each other.

Where fighters routinely avoid their most dangerous rivals, Djokovic and Nadal have met 43 times on the professional tour - a record for the Open era - with Nadal's 14-4 lead having been whittled back to 23-20.

The tally includes seven Grand Slam finals, and that 5hr 53min marathon in Melbourne that still has Andy Murray marvelling at Djokovic's ability to recover from a 4hr 50min semi-final two days earlier.

Even when you go back over all those epics, it is hard to remember a time when more has been hanging on the result. If Nadal wins, no one will be talking about the five defeats he has endured on clay this season, in his worst run on his favourite surface since 2004. If Nadal wins, he will be the strong favourite to seal La Decima - to borrow a term coined by his beloved Real Madrid. Ten victories at a single Slam would be an Open era record for either gender, moving Nadal out of a tie with Martina Navratilova's nine Wimbledons.

And if Nadal wins, it will be a crushing blow for Djokovic, a man who holds the other three titles and is desperate to complete the set. In fact, the challenger has spent the past few French Opens in such a frenzy of anticipation that it affected his health. Last year, Djokovic endured vomiting fits before the final, where Nadal dumped him out of the tournament for the third year in succession.

Yet Djokovic has seemed calmer over the past six months or so. Since October 21, in fact, the day he welcomed his first child Stefan into the world. This is a man who has always piled enormous pressure on to himself, to the point where his own lofty ambitions have sometimes inhibited him. So his new-found focus on home and family has proved beneficial, taking the edge off his tennis obsession.

It can be no coincidence that, since becoming a father, he has won not only the Australian Open but all five Masters 1000 events he has entered.

How Djokovic deals with his own expectations today will be crucial. His backhand, which is completely untroubled by shoulder-high balls, has the ability to negate Nadal's curling, exploding forehands. He will also be delighted if the forecasters who were predicting a moderately breezy 19C prove accurate.

Cold weather should prevent the court from responding too vigorously to his opponent's spin. If, however, play should be disrupted by the sort of gale that ripped a piece of panelling off the video screen yesterday, it will favour Nadal, who grew up playing in the trade winds that buffet Majorca.

There is another men's quarter-final to be played, of course, and it involves one of the five men who have beaten Nadal on the red dirt this season: Andy Murray. This is uncharted territory for Murray, for while he is far from being a stranger to the second week of the French Open, he has never achieved previously the sort of clay-court form that has enabled him to win 14 successive matches. If he beats David Ferrer today, that will equal his career-best winning run, set on hard courts in 2001. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

French Open,

Live, ITV 4/Eurosport/Setanta Ireland, 12.30

Telegraph.co.uk

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