Nadal looking for uncharted territory

PARIS -- David Ferrer, ecstatic, fell back on the red clay, his lifetime achievement finally secured. And then, even as the idea of his first Grand Slam final in 42 tries began to register, he sprang up with startling quickness, as if this new thought had occurred to him:

"Oh, [expletive deleted]. Now I have to play Rafa in the French Open final."

An expletive might not have surfaced in that complicated moment, but there was a strangely sober look on Ferrer's face as he walked to congratulate Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after their semifinal match. This is the effect of Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.

Back in March, I asked Ferrer what made Nadal so terrific on clay.

He shot me an odd look.

"But he is good in all the courts, no?" Ferrer said.

Yes, I said, but he's even better on clay.

"Because," Ferrer said, "he's an unbelievable player. He has all the shots. He has good receive, good forehand with topspin, [the] physical. For my mind, he's the best of the ATP. And in clay, he has more time for to hit the ball, no?"

Everyone, of course, has more time to hit the ball on clay, but Rafa and his unique skill set profit most from playing on the dirt. The seven-time champion meets Ferrer, a fellow Spaniard, in the Sunday afternoon final here. There is much on the line, but Nadal would like to clear up one misconception.

When a reporter asked him why he was so unbeatable at Roland Garros, Rafa quickly corrected him.

"I am not," he said. "I am not. Well, 100 percent sure I don't feel like this."

Nadal, for the record, is a monstrous 58-1 at Roland Garros. Not 100 percent, but how about 98.3? It is truly an extraordinary number. If you've been following along at home, you know this is the best record by any player at any Grand Slam ever. In all of professional sport, that's as close as you'll come to unbeatable.

Moreover, Rafa has won seven titles here in eight tries. It's surprising his teeth are still intact after all that chomping on the sterling championship trophy. That magnificent seven is a tournament record and matches the seven championships won by Roger Federer and Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. An eighth will vault Nadal into uncharted Open era territory.

After beating Novak Djokovic in a rousing semifinal that stretched across five sets and more than 4½ hours, Nadal said something interesting.

"Here is the most special tournament on clay," he noted. "I think playing best of five helps the best players because you can have mistakes and you have the chance to come back."

It doesn't happen often on clay, but Djokovic forced Nadal to mount a stirring response when he fell into a 2-4 hole in the fifth set. Nadal, broken in the very first game, broke back in the eighth, then put enough pressure on Djokovic to break him at love in the 16th game of the frame.

Odds are, Ferrer will need more than a few Rafa mistakes if he's going to compete with Nadal on Sunday. History says that won't happen, but, in the spirit of optimism, let's look at Ferrer's glass as half full.

First of all, he is the only singles player here, man or woman not to have dropped a set. Yes, Ferrer is 18-for-18, including that dismantling of the French favorite. In fact, Tsonga pushed Ferrer into his only tiebreaker of the fortnight -- and got just three points off the feisty 31-year-old.

Believe it or not, Ferrer has been on court for his six previous matches a total of six fewer hours than Rafa.

"It's a dream for me to be in a final of a Grand Slam," Ferrer said, meaning it. "Now, of course, I will fight. I need to play very aggressive all the match. I need to play my best tennis for to beat him."

Which begs the question: Would even Ferrer's best tennis be enough? The head-to-head results say no.

Nadal has won 19 of their 23 meetings. Let's review Nadal's losses: The first came on clay in Stuttgart nine years ago, and Ferrer, four years older, pulled it out 7-5 in the third. It was their first meeting. The other three all came on hard courts, back-to-back in 2007 then again at the 2011 Australian Open. The reality is that, since losing that first match, Nadal has won all of their 16 encounters on clay.

Last year, Rafa gave Ferrer only five games in their semifinal match here -- which might be instructive if you are wondering how Sunday's match will go. This year, in three meetings on dirt, Ferrer can take heart in the two sets he has won, one each in Madrid and Rome. Of course, Nadal closed him out in those matches with sets of 6-0 and 6-2, respectively.

But that doesn't mean this final won't have some tense moments. Nadal understands that, despite their history, he has to stick to his game plan.

"If I play my forehand well, being left-handed, I mean, that's a problem to all the other players," Nadal said. "If I manage to be aggressive, to be in the court, it can be a problem. It's been a problem for many of the players, so I hope it's going to be a problem for David, as well.

"I hope I'll be able to play my shots, long shots close to the baseline. I need to dictate the game at all times because if I give him an edge, then he is going to push me."

We take this for granted, but with all of Nadal's success this spring, it's becoming far too easy to forget where he was four months ago. After a stunning loss in the second round at Wimbledon, he left tennis for seven months. A partially torn patellar tendon in his left knee left some people wondering whether his career was in jeopardy.

It was not. Nadal has played in nine tournaments -- and reached the final in all of them. He lost in his first event back, in Vina del Mar, to Horacio Zeballos, of all people, and lost to Djokovic in Monte Carlo. His record is 42-2.

A win over Ferrer will give Nadal another milestone, too. His 59th singles victory would be the most ever at Roland Garros, one more than Roger Federer and Guillermo Vilas -- and he just turned 27 earlier this week. Raise your hand if, four months back, you thought Rafa would be on the verge of going 59-1 at the French Open.

Robin Soderling is the man who supplied the "1" in that record, beating Nadal in the fourth round here in 2009. Before the tournament, he offered this exclusive assessment of Nadal's future at Roland Garros:

"People still talk about it because he's only lost once, but he's going to have more losses in the French Open," he said. "I don't know, maybe he'll win five in a row, but I think in five years or something like that, he'll lose another match in the French -- then it won't be about me anymore."

Five in a row? That would be 12 titles at Roland Garros, a total that no longer seems so ludicrous. He can probably afford to lose one after that.