The French Open began with talk of a new order in the men's game but it will end with a renewal of the greatest rivalry of recent times. After his stunning victory over Novak Djokovic here on Friday night, which sent the Serb to his first defeat for six months, Roger Federer will face Rafael Nadal in this afternoon's final, their first meeting in a Grand Slam tournament for two-and-a-half years.
There was a time when Federer and Nadal seemed to meet in finals almost every other week. Between February 2006 and April 2009 they played each other 17 times, including 15 finals. In the 26 months since, they have met on just four occasions, thanks largely to Federer's fall from his previous heights.
This will be Federer's first appearance in a Grand Slam final since his victory over Murray at the Australian Open nearly 18 months ago, his longest run without an appearance in a major final since he won his first Wimbledon.
If Federer's return has confoundedthose who thought his best days were over, Nadal always expected the 16-times Grand Slam champion to be back. "It's no surprise," Nadal told a pre-final press conference yesterday. "You are more surprised than me, for sure. We know how good Roger is.
"In my opinion Roger has been having a good season. He lost against Novak in Australia, Dubai and IndianWells, and against me in Miami and Madrid. He was always there in semi-finals and final. He won in Doha. So he's having a very good year.
"It's impossible to be at your best every week. What Roger has done in his career is impossible for the rest of today's players to repeat. It's alwaysan honour to play against him."
You suspect that Nadal may be happier facing Federer than Djokovic, who has beaten the Spaniard in four successive Masters Series finals this year, including twice on clay. Nadal, who needs to take the title to avoid being replaced by Djokovic at the top of the world rankings, has won 16 of his 24 meetings with Federer and has beaten him 11 times out of 13 on clay.
While Nadal's form was so patchy early in the tournament that he did not believe he was playing well enough to defend his crown, he has played much better in his last two matches, beating Robin Soderling and Andy Murray in straight sets. Although he has dropped more games (77) en route to the final than ever before, he has still lost only once on these courts in 45 matches. That defeat was against Soderling two years ago, when the Spaniard's knees were so troublesome that he did not play for two months afterwards.
The one factor that could count in Federer's favour is the weather. After a gloriously sunny fortnight, thunderstorms are expected today. Heavier conditions might help the 29-year-old Swiss. When he won the title here for the only time two years ago, drizzle fell for much of the final.
"I always prefer the sunshine and the higher bounces," Nadal admitted. "For my game it's better if the ball is fast and if the bounces are higher. If there's rain and it's cloudy, sometimes the ball stays lower, so that's a little bit of an advantage for him."
Although their three consecutive French Open finals became increasingly one-sided, the two greatest players of recent times have served up plenty of classics: Miami in 2005, when Federer came back to win from two sets down; Rome in 2006, when Nadal saved two match-points to win after more than five hours; Wimbledon in 2007, when Federer won after five glorious sets; Wimbledon in 2008, perhaps the greatest match of all time, when Nadal won 9-7 in the final set; and Melbourne in 2009, when Federer cried after losing another five-set marathon.
It is some billing to live up to, but if any two players are capable of doing so it is the Spaniard and the Swiss.
Head to head in Paris finals
2006 Nadal won 1-6 6-1 6-4 7-6.
2007 Nadal won 6-3 4-6 6-3 6-4.
2008 Nadal won 6-1 6-3 6-0.
Nadal has won 16 of his 24 matches against Federer. In 13 meetings on clay Federer has won only twice.