Rafael Nadal, the defending and six-time French Open champion, has lost just 35 games in six matches in the tournament thus far. The fact that top-seeded and No. 1 ranked Novak Djokovic lost 11 more in just the two matches preceding his semifinal win over Roger Federer ought to give you a pretty clear idea of what the challenger is going up against.
Many pundits think Nadal is playing his all-time best tennis at Roland Garros, even if his path to the final has been paved with gimmes -- including two Spanish countrymen in the past two rounds.
Given how one of those guys, Nicolas Almagro, happily admitted that he still sees Rafa as "the boss," while the other (David Ferrer) was 5-17 against Nadal and had never been to a Grand Slam semifinal before the one he played with Nadal, well, that gives you an idea of just how fortunately the chips have fallen Rafa's way.
The only good news for Djokovic is this: After rolling through his two pals, and the palookas that preceded them, Nadal will awake in an utter panic when those lashing Djokovic forehands and hammer-throw backhands begin to land.
If you know anything about Nadal, you know how unlikely it is that this match will actually play out that way. He won't go into this final complacent or with eyes half shut. You also know how sweet this win would be, given the punishment Djokovic inflicted on Nadal in the course of stripping him of the No. 1 ranking 11 months ago.
Given Nadal's form and motivation, you have to wonder what on earth Djokovic can do to win this match. If he can do two of the following three things (and one of them is mandatory), I believe he can pull the rabbit out of the hat.
Let's start with the obligatory element:
1. Cut down the unforced errors: Djokovic has struggled in this tournament because he's been inconsistent and prone to unpredictable letdowns. He's had those tendencies all spring. But they were explained away by the fact that Djokovic had only two significant goals in the near term, the French Open and the Olympics. He wasn't going to sweat the small stuff.
That doesn't mean Djokovic gave less than his best effort in those earlier events, but it suggested that his motivation would get kicked up a notch at Roland Garros. Well, Djokovic has little time to recapture the form that made him Nadal's nemesis on red clay last year. The kissing ingredient has been consistency.
2. Serve out of his mind: We're talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 percent first-serve conversion, combined with excellent placement. It's still a fact that the serve is the only stroke in which an opponent has no influence, and thus it gives the server first dibs on taking control of a point.
Serving well always loads up the pressure on an opponent to hold his own service games, and both men will feel the weight of history pressing down on them in this one. Djokovic because he could become the first man in 43 years to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once, and Nadal because a win would be his unprecedented seventh at Roland Garros
In this matchup, I see Djokovic's serve as the chief weapon he can use to win the battle for court position.
3. Own the baseline: This match probably will belong to the man who most successfully plants himself on or inside the baseline. In today's power groundstroke game, control of the baseline is rapidly become strategic task No. 1.
Nadal's superb defense compensates for the fact that he isn't quite as good at taking the ball on the rise as his two main rivals (Djokovic and Federer), and none of the men Nadal has beaten thus far have a special talent for it.
When Djokovic won those two big Masters finals over Nadal last year (Madrid and Rome), he was very successful in pushing Nadal back and dictating from inside the court. Nadal no doubt has figured that out and will be more determined to stand his ground.
One way or another, history will be made Sunday. And if Djokovic hopes to be the one making it, he'll have to undergo an overnight transformation into the player he was a year ago.