To some, the French Open men's singles final may appear less a contest than the inevitable coronation of Novak Djokovic. He's beaten two of his Big Four brethren on the red clay of Stade Roland Garros, deposing King of Clay Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. Djokovic is riding an imperial 28-match winning streak, and his 2015 record is 41-2.
He also is motivated to secure the only major title he lacks to achieve a career Grand Slam -- something only seven men have accomplished, including Big Four members Nadal and Roger Federer. Djokovic has been a juggernaut. All that stands in his way now is the 30-year-old holder of a single Grand Slam title, the No. 8 seed sometimes known as "that other Swiss guy," Stan Wawrinka.
Piece of cake, right? Well, maybe not.
As Wawrinka said the other day, "[Djokovic has] been amazing so far this year, winning every big title. But, again, he never won French Open. If I have to play him in the final, for sure we both gonna be nervous. That's a fact."
There's some wisdom in those words, for Wawrinka speaks from personal experience. Five of their six five-set encounters have been brutal knockdown, drag-outs that went the distance -- two of them into extra time.
At the Australian Open in 2013, Djokovic won their fourth-round battle 12-10 in the fifth. A year later, Wawrinka deposed the defending champ in the quarters at the same event, 9-7 in the fifth. Djokovic avenged himself this year, as Wawrinka ran out of gas in the semifinals and lost 6-0 in the fifth.
Djokovic may have a whopping 17-3 head-to-head advantage, but the 28-year-old Serb knows that Wawrinka can hurt him and take the game to him in ways that his other main rivals cannot or will not. Djokovic will look to powder that inside-out forehand and belt winners with that atomic go-anywhere backhand any chance he gets.
Wawrinka isn't fearful. He will attack and try to keep Djokovic from employing those radiant defensive skills. Wawrinka will be aggressive in a way that just isn't in Andy Murray's DNA. It's also not what Nadal's game was built to do. Federer has been able to do it, which is why he has remained a thorn in Djokovic's side.
"Can be something really interesting," Wawrinka said. "I know that Djokovic not always happy to play me when I can play my aggressive game. So I will have to focus on myself and try to bring my A-game."
Wawrinka also showed that he knows how to step up to a big occasion. At the start of 2014, Nadal appeared ready to make a run at Federer's record 17 Grand Slam singles titles. The Spaniard reached the Australian Open final, where his opponent was first-time major finalist Wawrinka. Granted, Nadal had a sore back that worsened as the match progressed, but Wawrinka seized his opportunity. He took charge from the moment the first ball was hit and won.
The spirit may be willing Sunday, but what will the flesh do on that red clay on which Djokovic has been so proficient -- and on which Wawrinka has so often struggled? It's an ominous sign that while Wawrinka won the junior title at Roland Garros, he has been to the main draw quarters only once before (2013). Then, as the No. 3 seed in 2014, he was upset in the first round by Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. A fan of the tournament all his life, you might say Wawrinka has as much unfinished business at Roland Garros as his opponent.
Wawrinka is hoping that Djokovic can't take control of the points via his superior footwork before Wawrinka can get dialed in and bomb away.
"The difference is that on a hard surface you can hit hard more directly for the first two or three shots," said Wawrinka. "But on clay, you tend to slide. It's difficult to have good footwork, so during the first strokes you have to be careful that the other player doesn't take control."
Djokovic characterized his semifinal win against Murray as an "exhausting cat-and-mouse game." He needn't fear a repeat of that on Sunday.