PARIS (Reuters) - Novak Djokovic is the world number one, holds three major titles and is on a 27-match grand slam winning streak. Yet practically no one is giving him a chance of stopping Rafa Nadal in the French Open final on Sunday.
“How discouraging it is to play Nadal on this surface?” asked American tennis great John McEnroe. “It’s going to be unbelievably tough to beat this guy.”
“I know when (Bjorn) Borg played in my day he was like the human backboard. He was faster than everyone, fitter than everyone, and you couldn’t get a ball by the guy.”
If Djokovic wants to avoid a panic attack or tie himself up in knots just 24 hours before the men’s final, he will have to find a way to wipe out the memory bank labelled “Nadal”.
The Serbian has already admitted he was “really not good with numbers” and even thought Nadal “has lost what, two matches in his career here?”. For the record Nadal has lost just once since his 2005 debut, to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009, and will be going for a seventh title on Sunday.
The other numbers make grim reading for Djokovic.
Nadal has a 51-1 win-loss record at Roland Garros and has dropped just 35 games to reach the final here, which is the fewest games he has ever lost en route to a grand slam final
He is the first man since tennis turned professional in 1968 to reach five grand slam finals without dropping a set. Ominously, on each occasion he has gone on to win the title.
Nadal leads Djokovic 11-2 on clay and has won every set they have contested on the most famous claycourt stage.
Once he steps on to red clay, Nadal is like the ultimate playground bully who makes world-class claycourters look like toddlers taking their first tentative steps on red dirt - battering them into submission time and again.
“I’m sure the guys...thank God they’re not playing all the tournaments on clay. He’s amazing,” said 18-times grand slam champion Martina Navratilova.
“Nobody can be counted as a favorite against Nadal on clay, no matter what the ranking is.”
As if winning six Roland Garros titles in seven years were not awe-inspiring enough, the 2012 version of Nadal is even more lethal than the ones who left opponents feeling bruised and bloodied.
“The way he’s improved his game, like his serve, the parts of his game where he can move forward, his volley, the defensive ability he’s got, to track down balls and just make you play extra shots and the way he sort of slides into balls and puts away a shot ‑ shots that seem like impossible when I was playing ‑ it was unheard of,” said McEnroe.
Nadal, who allowed sixth seed David Ferrer just five games in his semi-final, said: “I’ve improved since last year, and things have turned out quite positively for me since the beginning of the year.
“That’s the reason I’m probably playing one of my best levels on clay the last couple of matches.”
But what Djokovic lacks in tactics, he more than makes up with his heart and sheer belief that he is the world’s best.
It was that belief that allowed him to escape two matchpoints against Roger Federer in the U.S. Open semi-finals last September. It was that belief that allowed him to dodge four match points against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals here.
It is that belief that he hopes will make him the first man in 43 years to win four majors in a row, and condemn Nadal to an unwanted record as the first man to lose four consecutive grand slam finals in the professional era.
“I have this golden opportunity to make history. This motivates me. It really inspires me,” Djokovic said after dispatching Federer in straight sets in Friday’s semis.
“I believe I’m at the peak of my career. I’m playing the best tennis of my life in the last year and a half, and I should use that. I should use that as a confidence boost and try to get my hands on the title.
“I know that I have to be consistently playing consistently well on very high level in order to win best‑of‑five against Nadal here. It’s the ultimate challenge.”
Editing by John Mehaffey