History, motivation on Rafa's side
I admit it, Kamakshi, the very recent history does not bode well.
Yes, No. 1-ranked Rafael Nadal has lost to No. 2 Novak Djokovic in all four of their finals this year. The last two, regrettably, on clay -- the surface on which Djokovic acknowledges Rafa as "the king."
It is easy to dismiss the result in Madrid, where the ball was flying at altitude and Roger Federer said the clay played faster than the hard courts in Miami. The final in Rome was more troubling; Djokovic moved flawlessly, taking the ball ridiculously early, and Nadal scrambled on defense.
And yet, if you ask me to name a favorite for the men's title at Roland Garros, I will give you Nadal, suddenly an underdog in the place he has virtually owned since 2005.
I do believe that both men will reach the final. But this time, I think Nadal ends Djokovic's 2011 victory streak at 43. Here is why:
The best part of Nadal's game is his want-to. After two straight losses on his favorite surface, it is difficult to imagine, even with Djokovic's swift ascension, that he will lose a third with so much on the line. Remember that he's won nine majors, compared to just two for the Serb, even though for the first 12 days of the tournament, they will be the same age, 24.
Rafa is an amazing 38-1 at the French Open, a winning percentage of 97.4. That history will sustain Nadal as he moves through the draw.
While it didn't receive a lot of attention, Nadal said he considered not playing his second match in Rome because of a virus-induced fever. He didn't complain about it, but I think that took something out of him. With a week to recover, he'll be ready for the best-of-five matches on which he's built his reputation. It wasn't that long ago that Djokovic's stamina in these major events was being questioned.
Call me nostalgic, but I'll take Rafa, who still holds a commanding 9-2 edge over Djokovic on clay, with his sixth title in seven years.
No reason Djokovic's streak will end
Why is Novak Djokovic the favorite to win the French Open this year? Two reasons:
1. He has dominated the field more than Rafael Nadal. Djokovic hasn't lost a match on clay this year. In fact, he hasn't lost a match this year, anywhere.
2. He's dominated Nadal. Djokovic beaten Nadal four times in a row. And he's beaten him on clay -- twice in a row.
And there's every reason to think both those trends will continue. Nadal is clearly lacking in confidence and hasn't felt really good at the Masters events all spring.
Djokovic, meanwhile, is brimming with confidence after his Rome heroics -- he won against Andy Murray in a three-hour semifinal and defied all expectations by coming back strong the next day to defeat Nadal. What can't he do right now?
If they meet in the final as anticipated, Nadal, unbelievably, is the one who must step up his game. Djokovic showed in Rome that he has turned the matchup in his favor. He is serving well and taking command off Nadal's second serves. His two-handed backhand is standing up to Nadal's ferocious forehands, and his ability to change the direction of the ball almost at will allows him to take command of the rally, sending the Spaniard scampering to cover the line on his weaker backhand side.
The holdout for Nadal is the best-of-five sets format used at the French -- can Djokovic, or anyone, win a full three sets on clay against him? Well, Djokovic has won four straight -- two in Madrid and two in Rome. And though a best-of-five match will be more grueling than either of those finals, he outlasted Nadal in a third-set tiebreak in Miami. So based on recent events, it is the world No. 1 who has something to prove even in the stamina department.
Unless he picked up an injury in Rome (he was wincing at times during the final), the biggest reason for betting against Djokovic is simply that he's won too much and surely must lose sometime soon. But don't bet your house on that counterargument.