It might seem as big a task as painting the Eiffel Tower or holding back the River Seine, but if anybody can beat Rafael Nadal here at the French Open it is surely Novak Djokovic. As the 27-year-old Serb prepares to face the 28-year-old Spaniard in this afternoon's final, he knows that he has beaten him in every other Grand Slam tournament, at the World Tour Finals and in all three clay-court Masters Series events.
Yet now Djokovic faces the biggest challenge of all. Nadal has lost only once in his 66 matches at Rol-and Garros – Robin Soderling beat him in the fourth round five years ago when Nadal's creaking knees gave way – and is on a 34-match winning run on these courts.
Nadal has beaten Djokovic in all five of their meetings here, but the world No 2 will take heart from his progress in their last three matches. Nadal won their 2008 semi-final in three sets, their 2012 final in four sets and their 2013 semi-final in five sets. Djokovic went desperately close to winning the latter match, having served for a 5-3 lead in the deciding set, which he lost 9-7.
In 2012 and 2013 Djokovic made no secret of the fact that the French Open was his biggest target as he sought to become only the eighth player in history to win all four Grand Slam titles. This time he insists he is not putting as much pressure on himself.
"I guess each year I gain experience in knowing how to handle certain situations psychologically," Djokovic said. "I would say I feel more of a positive emotion going into the final [this year]. Of course there is pressure and expectations. They are always present when you are playing at this level. But I'm trying to channel this energy in the right direction and not get carried away too much by the stress of the occasion.
"It's the final of a Grand Slam that I have never won. Of course I'm going to give my best to lift the trophy. I'm going to have the ultimate challenge on clay across the net in Nadal. We all know how successful he is. But I have to believe."
Nadal also has to deal with expectations. Already the only man to have won the same Grand Slam title eight times, he can become the first to win the French Open five times in a row. If he claims his 14th Grand Slam title tomorrow he will draw level with Pete Sampras and stand behind only Roger Federer, who has won 17. As if there was not enough at stake, Nadal also knows that he has to win to prevent Djokovic replacing him at the top of the world rankings.
"Novak has the motivation to win Roland Garros for the first time, for sure, but at the same time, he has the pressure to win for the first time," Nadal said. "I have the pressure that I want to win and the motivation that I want to win the ninth. So I don't see a big difference in that. I'm going to go on court with the same motivation as him."
Djokovic has won his last four matches against Nadal – he trails their head-to-head record 22-19 – and beat him on clay in the Rome final three weeks ago. However, Friday's semi-finals, in which Nadal crushed Andy Murray and a weary-looking Djokovic laboured to victory over Ernests Gulbis, have led to a shortening of the odds on the Spaniard.
With a sunny day and temperatures of 28C forecast, the conditions will suit Nadal. The hotter it is the quicker the balls fly through the air. The world No 1's forehands, struck with ferocious topspin, will be climbing to shoulder height off the court surface.
Five reasons to favour Nadal
1 He has lost only one of the 66 matches he has played at the French Open
2 He has won his last three Grand Slam meetings with Djokovic and all five of their previous matches at Roland Garros
3 He won his semi-final (against Andy Murray) more comfortably than Djokovic won his (against Ernests Gulbis)
4 He has won his last 34 matches at the French Open
5 The forecast hot and sunny conditions will suit his game
Five reasons to favour Djokovic
1 He has won his last four matches against Nadal, including last month's final on clay in Rome
2 He is the only man to have won three or more Grand Slam matches against Nadal
3 He has won his last 11 matches on clay
4 He has lost only to Swiss players this year (twice to Roger Federer, once to Stanislas Wawrinka)
5 Nadal has lost four of his nine matches this year against top 10 opponents
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