Originally written on The Sports Headquarters  |  Last updated 11/20/14
Rafael_nadal_91a1

Well, these two now hold the rivalry Grand Slam. The finals of each of the past 4 Slams (including this one) have been contested by these two, with Djokovic winning the last 3. Nadal has been lethally efficient this entire tournament. His serve has been broken once-in the first set of his first match. He has only been taken to one tiebreak. He has dropped an obscenely-low 35 games all tournament. He has looked nearly invincible. Djokovic, on the other hand, has not been so consistent this tournament. He’s been very good for most of it, and he produced the highest individual level during that fourth set against Tsonga, but he hasn’t shown anything close to that level for the vast majority of this tournament.

Nadal’s Keys to Victory:

1. Keep the serve up- Nadal’s serve itself has been uncharacteristically strong this tournament, which is not a bad thing at all. He’s not using the big serve that he showed at the 2010 US Open, but his serve has felt bigger than usual and has set up the point well for him, leading to a lot of cheap points. Djokovic has a great return of serve, so Rafa will have to mix it up and use it effectively to get him ahead to start the rallies.

2. Play his own game- We are far from the point we were at even 5 months ago, where nothing Nadal was doing against Djokovic was working. Then, it seemed, that Nadal needed to fix up his style or at least try something different just to beat Djokovic. Djokovic had beaten Nadal 8 straight times through the Australian Open this year. Now, though, Nadal has won their last two matches (both on clay) and seems to be the one playing at a higher level. If Djokovic can somehow pull out his 2011 level consistently during the match then Nadal may need to rework his strategy, but until Djokovic shows that level Nadal’s normal game should be more than enough to win this match.

3. Ignore the moment- Both of these men have a ton to play for. Djokovic is trying to become the first man since Rod Laver (and only the third in history) to hold all 4 Slams at once. Nadal is trying to win his seventh French Open, which would be the most by any man at this Slam and tie 5 others for the most at any individual Slam. There is ample reason for both guys to get nervous here. Nadal is the favorite though, so he might be more susceptible to the pressure. Still though, this is an important key for both players.

4. Don’t back off- I know it seems obvious, but it’s very easy for a player with a lead to lose a bit of motivation. Especially because, based on what we’ve seen so far this clay season and this tournament, Rafa is playing much better tennis right now. Still, though, Djokvic is dangerous and has shown us what he’s capable when he’s against the wall. He played at an unreal level when the match was on the line against Tsonga. Nadal can’t let them do that. If Nadal manages to get a lead, he can’t get complacent. He needs to play his absolute top tennis from start to finish or he risks letting Djokovic have a chance in a match that, from what we’ve seen so far, Djokovic shouldn’t have a chance in.

Novak Djokovic’s Key to Victory:

1. Play like it’s 2011- It’s simple, really. Djokovic is still one of the best players in the world right now (though a clear second-best on clay) but his form this year has been a far cry from the absolute dominance we saw last year. And it’s not like he’s doing anything worse in particular than before. His game is the same. It’s the same defense that he plays and he still switches it to offense so well. He’s just playing it at a level or two lower than last year. And if he wants to have a chance against Rafa on clay, he needs to find that top level that he had last year.

2. Play solid- It is very, very hard to hit winners against Nadal. That’s a fact that players need to deal with. And the fact that Djokovic managed to do that well last year doesn’t change the fact that it’s an incredible feat. Djokovic will need to hit multiple great shots if he is to win points-one or two to set things up and another to put the ball away. He can’t allow himself to be frustrated by having to hit multiple shots. He can win points against Nadal, even at this level. But to do it he will need to set up points and hit more than one big shot.

3. Always keep the ball deep- The very best way to win points against Nadal is to keep the ball deep throughout the rally. Keeping the ball deep keeps Nadal on the defensive the entire way through. Nadal is very dangerous from anywhere on the court, but it is still harder for him to hit winning shots from far behind the baseline. If Djokovic can keep the ball deep he can keep Nadal pinned behind the baseline and find some openings. It’s one thing that Djokovic did very well against Nadal in 2011 but hasn’t really managed to do this year. And he can’t leave anything short, because once you let Nadal start dictating the rally, you’re not going to win the point unless you can produce a level of tennis that Djokovic just hasn’t shown us this year.

4. Attack the backhand- The Nadal forehand might be the most lethal shot in the game right now. Djokovic can’t allow Nadal to hit big forehands on his own terms, and certainly not from anywhere near the baseline. Nadal’s backhand isn’t a weakness per se, but it is the shot that is a bit more vulnerable. More importantly, however, it’s a shot that isn’t almost guaranteed to take control of the point. Attacking the backhand might allow Djokovic to find a weakness, but it also means avoiding Nadal’s strength.

Prediction:
Djokovic, at his level from last year, might have been able to make a real match of this. Of course, Nadal this year is playing at a higher level than he was last year as well. We have seen nothing this tournament, or this entire season, to let us think that Djokovic has a chance against Nadal on clay. Certainly the relative ease with which Nadal beat Djokovic in the Monte Carlo and Rome finals should give Nadal fans more than ample reason to be confident. And Nadal is playing at an even higher level now than he was even two weeks ago. Unless Djokovic can find his 2011 level from somewhere, this might not even be close.
Nadal in 3

For my women’s final preview, please click here.

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