French Open: Djokovic and Nadal whipping up storm
So it will be Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the Hector and Achilles of modern tennis, who contest tomorrow's French Open final.
With one man chasing the 'Novak Slam' and the other on the verge of a record seventh title at Roland Garros, it will be the latest episode in a truly epic rivalry.
Djokovic and Nadal have now won through to the climax of four Grand Slam tournaments in a row -- a feat which no two players in the history of the game can match.
You might think that such domination would be boring, but when you watch the phenomenal feats that they perform, day after day, few fans are complaining.
Yesterday's semi-finals both produced straight-sets victories, yet you could hardly call them routine.
On a day when the flags were whipping around in a swirling wind, Nadal was note perfect against his Spanish 'mini-me' David Ferrer. At one point, he slipped over on his way in to the net, played a little periscope shot from a sitting position, and still managed to win the point.
Nadal is not just the best player in the world on clay, he is the best player in the wind. His catlike steps put him in the perfect position to adjust to the ball's late movement, and his massive topspin makes the ball dive down into the court, even when it has a gale behind it. He strode to a 6-2 6-2 6-1 victory.
Nadal's record at Roland Garros has now stretched to 51 wins and one defeat, against Robin Soderling in 2009. On his way to the final this year, he has not lost a set, and has dropped his serve only once. Can Djokovic interrupt Nadal's apparently inexorable march?
His defeated opponent yesterday, Roger Federer, does not think so. "I think Rafa is the overwhelming favourite," Federer said last night.
One suspects that Federer himself will be rooting for Nadal in the final. In '07 and '08, Federer stood within one tournament of completing his own non-calendar Grand Slam, only to lose to Nadal in the final of the French Open on both occasions. If Djokovic were to complete the set at the first attempt, and thus achieve a coup that Federer spent his career chasing, the great man could be excused for feeling a little grumpy.
Yesterday, the second semi-final was no Djokovic-Federer classic but it still threw up some mesmerising rallies. One 36-stroke exchange ended with a spectacular 'tweener' recovery shot from Djokovic, which Federer vollied away for the calmest of winners.
Against the most efficient returning machine in tennis, Federer came out looking to gamble, to rush the net or throw in an unexpected angle. This was a no-brainer: he knows that baseline slugging is Djokovic's game, and that a battle between a mallet and a tent-peg is only going to have one winner.
There were times when Federer was able to get on the front foot, breaking for 3-2 in the first set and 3-0 in the second. But then Djokovic would force him back again, and his lead kept evaporating.
There was much comment about the number of errors coming off Federer's racket -- 46 in the match -- but most came at the end of a lengthy, energy-sapping duel, which found Djokovic as unyielding as a block of marble.
"I was struggling to keep the ball in play long enough even though I wasn't hitting the ball poorly," Federer said after his 6-4 7-5 6-3 defeat.
For Djokovic, meanwhile, tomorrow's final presents a fascinating prospect.
He has won the last three Grand Slam tournaments, as well as seven of his last nine meetings with Nadal, and yet hardly anyone is seriously considering him as a potential champion here.
Throughout this French Open, Djokovic has been inconsistent and has lost concentration at times. But whenever he stands on the brink of elimination, as he did when facing four match points against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals, he taps into some sort of inner genius that finds an answer.
He will need to have all the answers to overcome the King of Clay tomorrow. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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