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By Chris Oddo
Photo Credit: Mike Hewitt/ Getty
Rafael Nadal - 2012 French Open
(June 9, 2012)—Hyperbole can be an all too common redundancy in tennis writing—it’s simply too tempting to want to glorify this era of unprecedented excellence in men’s tennis—but when Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal lock horns on Sunday in the 111th French Open final, even the puffiest words won’t adequately convey the historical consequence of the event.

With each finalist one step from a colossal, career-defining milestone, rarely has there been a match on which so much collective legacy hinges. For Nadal, the opportunity to solidify his status as the best clay-court player in tennis history with a record-breaking seventh French Open title; for Djokovic, an opportunity to become the first player to hold all four Grand Slam trophies in forty-three years.

But there is also the implicit reality that a deep disappointment awaits the loser. For Nadal, there is the danger of becoming the first player in the Open Era to lose four consecutive Grand Slam finals. Should Djokovic lose, there is sure to be an overwhelming feeling of regret for failing to capitalize on a small window for greatness that will more than likely never be open again.

But Djokovic knows he’ll be up against more than just history tomorrow. Beating Nadal on clay is without question the most difficult task in all of tennis, as 16-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer can attest. Federer tried twice to complete the non-calendar-year Grand Slam but failed twice in the same stadium that Djokovic is poised to enter as the underdog tomorrow, against the same daunting opponent.

“He plays always his best here in Roland Garros,” said Djokovic of the man who defeated Federer in the 2006 and 2007 French Open final, just when he was on the cusp of the Federer Slam. “It’s an ultimate challenge.”

Beating Nadal on his beloved red clay, or “Terre Battue” as it is know to Parisians, would be the ultimate way for Djokovic to leave his stamp on the “Novak Slam.” History will surely be kind to him if he can manage the task.

Nadal’s 51-1 record at Roland Garros and his career 93-percent winning percentage on clay give little indication of just how tyrannical Nadal is on the dirt.

“It’s like walking the plank when you play Nadal,” squawked Tennis Channel commentator John McEnroe while calling his third-round match against Eduardo Schwank last week.

“He’s like a buzzsaw,” McEnroe quipped yesterday, as Nadal cruised through his semifinal against David Ferrer while hardly breaking a sweat.

Nadal will enter the final as the heavy favorite tomorrow, having yet to yield a set in his six previous matches at Roland Garros. But if there if there is anybody who can challenge the Spaniard, it is Djokovic. The Serb is one of only three players to have won two or more wins against Nadal on the surface, and even though his streak of seven consecutive wins against Nadal in finals ended this spring when Nadal defeated him in Monte-Carlo and then again in Rome, Djokovic does appear to be peaking at the right time at Roland Garros.

“I believe that today was the best match of 2012 Roland Garros for me, so I’ve raised my game when I needed to,” said Djokovic. “I’ve played really well when it was the most important, so that’s something that gives me confidence before the final.”

Nadal, meanwhile, would like nothing more than to make things difficult for his opponent. “It’s going to be a difficult match for me,” said Nadal, “hopefully for him too.”

With so much riding on the outcome, two extraordinarily gifted players, in the primes of their tennis careers, will step out onto the Stade Philippe Chatrier tomorrow with everything to prove, everything to gain, and lots to lose.

Regardless of the outcome, history will be made.

If the match lives up to the hype, so much the better.

 

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