Nadal vs Djokovic: King of Clay faces his challenger at Roland Garros
Rafael Nadal's reward for his 29th birthday, on Wednesday, is a French Open quarterfinal match against World No. 1 Novak Djokovic.sports Updated: Jun 03, 2015 19:44 IST
Rafael Nadal's reward for his 29th birthday, on Wednesday, is a French Open quarterfinal match against World No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
The match is arguably the most heavyweight men's quarterfinal Grand Slam match of the Open Era since the 2001 US Open clash between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.
Both Agassi and Sampras, however, had already won the title in New York in earlier editions. In Paris, however, the stakes will be considerably higher.
Nadal's quest for 'La Decima' - a 10th Roland Garros title - effectively hinges on this match, along with a chance to regain some much-needed confidence, following a comeback season in which the King of Clay has had his worst showing on the clay courts of Europe since 2003.
For Djokovic lies the chance to win Roland Garros for the first time and complete the Career Grand Slam, a dream he has been pursuing obsessively and in all earnestness since his first Paris final in 2012.
Nadal leads this statistic 23-20. But Djokovic has won five of the pair's last seven matches and has beaten Nadal on clay five times in best-of-three-set matches.
On the clay of Paris, however, Nadal is now 6-0 against Djokovic. At the Majors, Nadal leads 9-3.
The Spaniard thus holds a slight edge when it comes to his rivalry with the Serb.
On the basis of current form, Djokovic is the heavy favourite.
The Serb has lost just two matches this season, with a 39-2 record thus far. He has won the Australian Open as well the Masters 1000 titles at Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Rome.
Nadal, in contrast, is 29-9 thus far this season. His usually reliable forehand has been inconsistent this season, while he has openly admitted to being far more nervous than usual in the important stages of matches.
Heading into Paris, the Spaniard was 17-5 on clay this season. The fact that he lost a total of three matches on clay between 2006 and 2010 helps put that number in perspective. He has won just one title since Roland Garros last year. The last time Nadal went into Paris without a title on European clay was in 2004, before his French Open debut.
Although Nadal is much less of an underdog now than he was at the start of the tournament, Djokovic is still the safe pick on the basis of form.
The Paris factor
Although Djokovic has breached traditional Nadal strongholds such as Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid in recent times, Paris remains a different ball game altogether.
"Playing him here and playing him in any other tournament in the world is completely different. Conditions are very suitable to his style of the game," Djokovic said on playing Nadal in Paris.
Nadal has a staggering 70-1 career record at Roland Garros thus far, and is 9-0 in French Open finals. This record is all the more impressive given that the fickle Parisian crowd vociferously roots against him every time he plays.
No matter what his form, Nadal cannot be counted out at Roland Garros. Playing him on Court Philippe Chatrier is just as difficult, if not more, as facing Novak on Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena or Roger Federer on Wimbledon's Centre Court.
Nadal needs to hit his forehand with good depth and hit it down the line regularly to take control of rallies. Although he has struggled with his forehand this season, four solid matches have helped him iron out the chinks in his offense to a great deal.
The Spaniard also needs to protect his second serve well. Variations in direction are a must. If he chooses to go safe with the second serve and just spin it in, Djokovic, one of the best returners in the business today, will pounce.
Djokovic will need to use his two-handed backhand to neutralise Nadal's top-spin and move the Spaniard out of the court by hitting the ball flat and early to his forehand until he can find the open court to hammer the ball up the line.
Most of all, Djokovic must not allow himself to get distracted by the thought of making history by winning his first Roland Garros for the first time. He simply needs to continue playing the way he has all season.