By Sandra Harwitt
Coming into the French Open there couldn’t have been a tennis fan alive who didn’t want to see the staging of the quarterfinal encounter between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
In one corner, it’s the indisputable world No. 1 – that’s Djokovic – against the King of Clay and record nine-time French Open champion – that’s Nadal.
Ahead of the tournament there was no denying that Djokovic had favored nation status this time around – he is the premiere player of the year, possesses that confident swagger, and has had the audacity to beat Nadal in a previous clay encounter this season in the Monte Carlo semifinal. Surely he looked on tap to finally fulfill his quest of a personal Grand Slam by adding a French Open trophy to his collection.
Nadal, returning to tennis after missing most of the last half of last year with injury and illness, just hasn’t seemed Nadal-like. His lowest moment came when he admitted in Miami that when he is on the tennis court he is afraid — that’s right, scared because he isn’t feeling the vibe that lets him know how matches should be played out. There was no way showing up in Paris he could be regarded as anything but the underdog, even on the clay at Roland Garros.
But things have changed a bit since the tour arrived in Paris. It’s as if this place has a magical allure for Nadal. While it’s true he’s not quite the Nadal he used to be, he’s starting to look like that guy from before, if you know what I mean. Gone is the bewildered look in his eye, and the resignation his body language was giving off when things weren’t going well. He’s pumping his fist, jumping his jump – he’s engaged and he wants a 10th French Open title and he wants it here this year. And in his mind he can remember back to six previous meetings with Djokovic at Roland Garros and know he won them all.
That said, Djokovic certainly is in his best position to win in Paris than he’s been in previous years. He can feel the opportunity is dangling in front of him, and can regard Nadal’s 23-20 winning advantage over him as something related to results from yesteryear. In their most recent six matches dating back to 2013 Beijing, Djokovic has won five of the encounters.
While commonsense would dictate backing Djokovic on Wednesday, I can’t help thinking that Nadal isn’t quite ready to give up his French Open dynasty yet. If Nadal’s going to conquer Djokovic he’s going to have to bring his best to the table. He will need to take Djokovic out game-wise – that means hitting deep and not giving the Serbian short balls to crunch. He will have to shake Djokovic’s confidence, which is not so easy to do when a guy has results and luck on his side all year long.
Bottom Line: Right now, it’s looking more even than originally anticipated ahead of this matchup. So let the fun begin as we watch to see who survives.
As for my opinion, I can’t help thinking that despite the obvious, Nadal, who is 70-1 in matches played at Roland Garros, will find a way to win.