Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic
What if anything can be said about this match that has not already been said? I will take a quick look at how each man enters this final four.
Rafa’s Remaining Road to 14 is No Easy Path
Nadal is obviously the favorite at Roland Garros until someone forcefully proves that he isn’t. 13 titles and a winning percentage of over 98% from 2005-Now make Rafa the favorite at the French Open. Still, his semifinal pits him against the world #1 and one of 2 men to actually beat him at the French Open. Also, he won so convincingly in the 2020 final the #1 seed enters with little pressure from expectations. Beyond that are two younger players. One won Monte Carlo and had match points vs. Rafa in the final of Barcelona. The other beat Rafa in Madrid. This is not like Rafa is facing the prospect of beating two players with no real hope to win a 14th (!) Roland Garros title.
Still, Nadal’s game is uniquely suited to the large backcourt provided beyond the baseline. His career excellence in tennis in general plus absolute dominance of clay court tennis for over 15 years have to supply him with a ton of self-confidence. Finally, Nadal who looked like he would have crawled across hot lava to beat Guillermo Coria at Rome in 2005 is still willing to pay the price to win points, games, sets, and matches in a manner that has to weigh on his opponents’ minds. Even slight dips in concentration or any hesitation to answer the bell will be punished.
Djokovic Has to Love this is a Semifinal
Last fall, Grand Slam totals were on the line in the championship match along with the monumental task of beating Rafael Nadal at the French Open. While this or any match with Nadal is going to have implications for history, it is not Tennismagedon. It is the 6th of 7 matches needed to win the 2021 French Open. Novak Djokovic beat Rafa in the 2015 French Open quarterfinal round. But their 2013 semifinal clash was an epic match that saw Novak fall 4-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (3), 7-9. I have to think that losses to Rafa in Paris prior to 2011 don’t factor into how Novak sees this match (or Rafa’s POV for the matter). His 4 set losses in the 2012 and 2014 final were not bad. Sure he got drubbed in 2020, but he drubbed Rafa in 2015. 2013 was the one that got away.
Wouldn’t Nole like to play a guy who clobbered him less than 12 months ago because of the 2020 COVID schedule? How often does the world #1 get to enter a match with many people thinking he has no chance to win? If he loses in 3 or 4 sets, no one is going to think much of it because it is Rafa in Rafa’s house. Can Novak envision himself finding a way to make this match like the one that got away? Sure. Can he see himself closing the deal? Again, yes. He has done it before.
To win, Djokovic will have to return quite well to start as many rallies as possible from a better than neutral spot. Similarly, Djokovic will need to serve well to consolidate the advantages his return might give him. I think Rafa has an edge once a rally gets onto neutral footing because he can push 55% or more of those points into places he likes to be. Novak defends well and strikes an amazing ball so Rafa can’t just seize control of every neutral rally. But on this particular court, where Rafa has so much room to defend, he can bide his time and take control of points in a way that inflicts physical wear and tear for the next point. Djokovic cannot surrender a lot of court positioning. If the world #1 can stay close to the baseline, he can dictate more frequently. Still, the ifs start piling up: return well, serve well, hold ground and command the baseline, etc. Novak can do all of these things. He will do all of them. The question is does he do all of them often enough to take command of and close out 3 sets. That is no easy task. It can be done. Djokovic is the most likely to do it. Still, the odds are in Rafa’s favor. My prediction: Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6.