Two weeks ago, I favored Djokovic, who looked driven to complete the career Grand Slam. Watching Rafa rampage into his ninth French Open final was a reality check. If Djokovic serves boldly and hits his backhand down the line accurately—as he did beating the top seed in the Rome final—he can make history and regain the world No. 1 ranking. But Nadal is serving with more sting, hitting his forehand with bigger bite, playing with plenty of positive energy, and has a lot more room to run on Court Chatrier—a stage he owns—than he did in Rome.
It feels like it did when Nadal, after two failed attempts to dethrone Roger Federer at Wimbledon, finally did so in 2008. Djokovic has beaten Nadal at every clay-court tournament of consequence except the French Open, and he nearly did so last year. Nadal has Djokovic seemingly lodged in his head, like he was in 2011, having lost their last four encounters, all finals. There are many reasons, ranging from the statistical to the physical to the emotional to the spiritual, that point to Djokovic finally beating the king of clay on his court.
But there’s one that says he won’t: It’s Rafa at Roland Garros. The eight-time champion will find a way, even if it takes five long sets, to win Paris for the ninth time.
Up until the semifinals, the stars seemed to be aligning irreversibly for Djokovic. He was ripping through the draw while Nadal was still ironing out kinks in his game. All that turned around on Friday. Djokovic alluded to feeling out of sorts after he beat Ernests Gulbis in four sets. Meanwhile, Nadal crushed Andy Murray, his forehand once again working like the hammer of Thor. Djokovic knew what he was up against from the get-go, but now that he’s seeing it at close range, I don’t believe he’ll have the game and gumption to beat Nadal—not on this court.
It's something-has-to-give time again: Nadal is 5-0 against Djokovic at Roland Garros; Djokovic has won their last four matches. Over these two weeks, Nadal has made his odds of winning better: He came out of his quarterfinal with David Ferrer with new confidence, and played his best match of the spring against Murray. On the other side, Djokovic said he was tired in his semifinal, which isn't going to work too well against Rafa on clay over five sets. But Djokovic has a way of putting questions of form and fitness behind him when he plays Nadal, and bringing his best.
The Pick: Djokovic