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By Chris Oddo | Monday, June 1, 2015

 
Rafael Nadal French Open

Ahead of the quarterfinal to end all quarterfinals, we ask five questions about Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic's upcoming battle.

Photo Source: Thibault Camus

Christmas never comes early but for tennis fans—particularly those who love crushed red brick and long, slow rallies—something even better does. That something will come this Wednesday when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic meet in the quarterfinal that should be a final at Roland Garros.

More: Monfils Vanishes, Federer Advances

Who’s ready? Just kidding. Obviously you’re ready. You’re foaming-at-the-mouth ready. Your abode is so full of popcorn that there is no room to put your Djokovic (or Nadal, pick your poison) voodoo doll. With that in mind, let’s ask (and try to answer) five key questions about Wednesday’s battle:

1. Who benefits more from meeting in a quarterfinal rather than a final?

Advantage: Djokovic

At first this seemed like a greater advantage than it actually is for Djokovic. Before the first ball was struck in Paris, Nadal was considered to be out of sorts and in need of time to dial in his game. Six matches, all solid, preferably. But as it turns out, Nadal is in a lot better shape in Paris than many expected him to be. There really is something about Roland Garros that puts wind in his sails. Suddenly, the beleaguered, downtrodden Nadal is flying high like the national flags that circle Court Philippe Chatrier on a windy day. He’s running around forehands, pummeling balls as if they insulted his family for no apparent reason while they were taking a quiet dinner in a Parisian bistro. He’s flying around the court with nary an ounce of hesitation.

That said, there is one problem with Nadal’s first four matches: He has not been tested enough. He hadn’t been troubled for a single minute of a single match until today, and when he hit a bump in the road thanks to a questionable time violation call that went in favor of Jack Sock, he produced mixed results. The old nerves seemed to be rearing their ugly head as Nadal dropped the third set to the American on Monday—not exactly the response he needed to completely restore the confidence. So how will the king of clay react the first time he’s facing a crucial break point or is set point down against Djokovic, a man who has now won 26 consecutive matches?


Remember, Nadal entered Roland Garros with confidence issues. Can we be so sure that the terre battue has cured all of his ills? Not yet, but we will know where his confidence and self-belief really stand after this match.

2. Who has more to lose, and therefore is facing more pressure?

Djokovic

Once again the Serb enters Roland Garros in superhuman form, with an otherworldly win streak (currently 26), as the clear favorite at a tournament that he’s never won. Meanwhile, the nine-time Roland Garros champion enters as the consensus underdog, with snarl bristling, momentum building and focus narrowing.

For Djokovic, the struggle is to KEEP IT GOING. For Nadal, the struggle is to KEEP GOING. Djokovic has to fight to stave off the inevitable—that he will lose again—which is an altogether more difficult task than Nadal’s, which is to finally play the way he is capable of at the tournament that he has done it most often.

Have we been here before? Yes. 2011 was eerily similar. As was 2013. Maybe even last year. But one can make the argument that Djokovic is an even better, more emotionally and psychologically balanced player now than he was then. One could also make the argument that Nadal, despite his recent rejuvenation, is a tick or two off what he was in those years.

Still, the pressure is on Djokovic, and how he deals with it in the quarterfinal will likely make or break his chances.

3. Who has a better chance of winning the title if they win the quarterfinal?

Advantage: Nadal

If Nadal wins there will be no stopping him. He’ll win his tenth French Open title and the achievement will go down as the greatest achievement in the history of tennis.

If Djokovic wins, he’ll still have two hurdles to get over before he takes home the title. Will he be able to come down from the emotions of beating Nadal to focus on getting through two more matches? Will the memory of what Federer did to him in 2011 haunt him?


4. If the quarterfinal goes five sets, who has the better chance to win?

Advantage: Djokovic

Something about Djokovic says that if this becomes a battle of wills, characterized by suffering, he will come through. He’s won those types of matches before, and he’s become quite good at finding that extra gear. Knowing Djokovic and his will to win this title, he may even have a gear that none of us have ever seen yet.

Nadal’s situation is a bit different. He’s still theoretically recovering to top form, and he's 4-4 in deciders this year with only one five-setter (a win over Smyczek in Australia) to his name. To play set against Djokovic will surely leave his tank a little lower than it has been in a while. Sure, he’ll be ready, but will he be ready to shine?

5. Who Will the Conditions Favor?

Advantage: Too tough to call

Sunny, warm conditions will put a smile on Rafael Nadal’s face without a doubt. As of yesterday, the Paris forecast called for sun and significantly warmer temperatures for Wednesday. This would aid Nadal in his quest. His topspin will be jumping off the terre battue, and his already burgeoning confidence will likely ratchet up another notch beneath the baking summer sun.

But at last glance, while warmer (72 compared to high 60s today), there appears to be a chance of showers in Paris. That would favor Djokovic.

What does it all add up to? Immense pleasure for one, angst and agony for the other (and zillions of fans on both sides as well). Would we want it any other way?

Pop your popcorn and prepare your voodoo dolls. Christmas comes but twice a year for die-hard tennis fans.

 

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