It will be nine on the line for Rafael Nadal when the world No.1 locks horns with Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s Roland Garros decider.
This will be the 42nd installment in what is shaping as the greatest rivalry in the modern men’s game. The Spaniard leads it 22-19 and based on his annihilation of Andy Murray in Friday’s semi-finals, he has forcibly clawed back the sliver of favouritism the Serb held coming into this year’s second major.
Should the world No.1 triumph he would become the first player to win at least one Grand Slam title for 10 consecutive years. He has now won 52 straight semi-finals on clay since his only loss to Carlos Moya at Umag in 2003 and stands to become the first man in the Open Era to reach nine finals at the one major.
Despite three losses on the red dirt leading into Roland Garros, the alarm bells were completely silenced on Friday. “Probably compared with the last eight years it will be a little bit more negative, but for me, it's still a very good clay-court season. The important thing is that I played at a very high level today. I finished the match well the other day. I played again probably my best match in the clay-court season today,” Nadal said.
A four-match losing streak against the man to face him in Sunday’s decider, including their most recent – on clay in the Rome final – may have sapped the Spaniard of some of the confidence he had carried to Paris in previous years. But Djokovic may have more to play for, namely the chance to join Nadal and just five other men to have won each of the four majors.
“Novak already has a lot of times positive results here. It's nothing new for him to be in the final. He has the motivation to win Roland Garros for the first time for sure,” Nadal said. “But at the same time, he has the pressure to win for the first time. I have the pressure that I want to win and the motivation that I want to win the ninth. So I don't see a big difference in that. I'm going to go on court with the same motivation as him. He beat me four times but he never beat me here. It's true that I prefer to be in a position that I beat the opponent that I’m gonna play four times than in the other position. Probably he will come to the match mentally a little bit better than me because he beat me in the last four. But at the same time, my feeling is I am doing things better and I am playing better again, so that's a positive feeling for me.”
Where Nadal typically grasped for the underdog tag going into the final, Djokovic would draw more insight from the man so soundly thrashed in Friday’s semi-final, Andy Murray.
“He missed hardly any balls. He served very well. His forehand – especially with the conditions the way they were today – was incredibly hard to control. As soon as he was inside the court, he was hitting the ball so close to the line,” Murray said. “That's the toughest match I have played against him. It was a bad, bad day … I never want to say forget about matches like this, but obviously the grass court season starts in a couple of days and I need to switch my mind to that.”
For Nadal, however, one match of the clay season still remains. Time to silence those alarm bells once and for all.