Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have met 32 times on the court, including eight times in Grand Slam tournaments and the last three Grand Slam finals, but never has there been as much at stake as there will be this afternoon – forecast thunderstorms permitting – on Court Philippe Chatrier.
For Djokovic there is the chance to become only the third man – and the first for 43 years – to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time. For Nadal the goal is to win a seventh French Open title and put himself clear of Bjorn Borg, with whom he shares the current record.
Both men agree that Nadal is the favourite at a tournament where he has lost only once in eight visits – "Don't say 'big favourite' but you can keep the word 'favourite' if you want," the ever-modest king of clay told his questioners yesterday – but nobody should write off Djokovic. The world No 1 is acutely aware of his chance to make history and you sense he is excited rather than daunted by it. "I have this golden opportunity," he said. "This motivates me. It really inspires me."
In his early years Djokovic had a reputation as a man who struggled when the going got tough, but in the last 18 months the 25-year-old Serb has become the iron man of his sport, a ferocious competitor who never wavers even in his most difficult moments. He saved four match points in beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals here and in last year's US Open semi-finals produced the shot of the season when match point down to Roger Federer, hammering an outrageously bold forehand winner on return of serve.
For years it was Nadal who was the ultimate warrior, playing every point as if his life depended on it, but in the course of their recent meetings you sense that Djokovic has got inside his head. In the final set of their near six-hour final in this year's Australian Open, Nadal led 4-2 and 30-15 when he put a backhand wide with the court at his mercy. He went on to lose five of the next six games and with them the match.
Melbourne was the seventh final in succession in which the Serb had beaten the Spaniard. While Nadal has won subsequent meetings, in the clay-court finals in Monte Carlo and Rome, Djokovic's mind was elsewhere in the former after the death of his grandfather and the latter seemed to mean more to Nadal following his defeat in the final a year earlier.
The facts, nevertheless, suggest that Nadal is better than ever on the surface he so loves. The world No 2 – who will swap places with Federer, the No 3, if he loses today – has lost only once on clay since last year's Rome final and only once in 52 matches on these courts, against Robin Soderling three years ago, when his knees were in tatters. This year he has lost no sets en route to the final and just 35 games, six fewer than his previous best year here in 2008.
Nadal insisted that he was not giving any thought to beating the record of French Open titles. "Seriously, extra pressure on me because it would be the seventh is zero," he said. "The pressure is the same because it's another final of Roland Garros."
The Spaniard added: "I have to dictate my game. I can't let him feel comfortable. I want to make him move on the court. If I just return the ball I can't win. But if I manage and vary my shots and be aggressive and I don't allow him to attack too much, the match is going to be different."
Djokovic, who will be playing in the final for the first time, has not won a set in three previous meetings with Nadal here, but the last was four years ago. "I feel different nowadays – I believe I'm at the peak of my career," Djokovic said. "He is the favourite, but I believe in myself."
Novak Djokovic will attempt today to join Don Budge and Rod Laver as the only men in history to have held all four Grand slam titles at the same time
1938: Don Budge
Opponents beaten in finals: John Bromwich (Australia), Roderick Menzel (French), Bunny Austin (Wimbledon), Gene Mako (US)
When Fred Perry turned professional in 1937, Budge took his chance to dominate the amateur game. The American won only six Grand Slam titles, but four came in a single year. Budge had a superb backhand and was one of the first players to usehis physical power to dominateopponents.
1962: Rod Laver
Opponents beaten in finals: Roy Emerson (Australia, French, US), Martin Mulligan (Wimbledon)
The Australian did not enjoy the best of health as a child but developed his strength on his father's cattle farm. "The Rocket", who struck the ball with heavy topspin with his bulging left arm, won his first Grand Slam singles title in 1960 (at Wimbledon) and picked up all four in 1962
1969: Rod Laver
Opponents beaten in finals: Andres Gimeno (Australia), Ken Rosewall (French), John Newcombe (Wimbledon), Tony Roche (US)
Laver turned professional after his 1962 triumph and missed out on Grand Slam competition (which was only for amateurs) for five years until the sport went open in 1968. Winning all four titles the following year, against all the world's best players, was arguably the greatest achievement in the history of tennis.
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