Rafael Nadal will be going for a record seventh title at Roland Garros.
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Novak Djokovic celebrates his win over Roger Federer.
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By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
PARIS -- Exactly how does one beat Rafael Nadal on clay, or even conceive of beating him? Play more aggressive, as David Ferrer replied when asked what he could have done to better his 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 loss to his fellow Spaniard in the semifinals of Roland Garros. But how do you do that when you are a born and bred counterpuncher who is not used to going on offense immediately? How does one construct points against a player who is the ultimate defense-to-offense player and who is striking the ball at such a high level during 2012 Roland Garros that his first crack at a winner is usually all he needs?
Nadal, the 2009 US Open champion, has lost only 35 games entering the final and has been broken only once, better than he has done in his previous six runs in Paris. He is serving devastatingly well. He is returning deep and with authority. He is cracking one left-handed forehand winner after another and moving his backhand around adeptly. There does not seem to be anything wrong with his game at this moment. But Nadal thinks that a little tinkering might be in order.
"I don't believe in perfection," he said. "I really don't like to talk about perfection because that doesn't exist. You can play always better. But sure I am very happy the way that I am playing. Probably today was my best match of the tournament. That's fantastic -- play my best match in one semifinals and against probably the more difficult opponent that I play here."
Ferrer, who so comprehensively had dispatched a disheartened Andy Murray, had no answer at all. Neither did Nicolas Almagro in the previous round, who played possibly the best clay-court match of his life and could not win a set. Nadal also mauled his good buddy Juan Monaco.
Just when is this utter domination of the French Open going to end?
Possibly in the final against Novak Djokovic, who quickly ground down Roger Federer, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3. It was a solid performance in the wind by the man who has been the most mentally tough and physically strong player since the start of 2011. Djokovic moved well, returned with ambition, was generally more opportunistic than he was in his previous matches and seemed to be well aware that Federer would gradually fall apart if he kept the ball deep.
And how right he was, as Federer, despite having a few brilliant streaks, was incredibly erratic as he consistently went for broke, ending the match with 46 unforced errors to only 33 winners, and nearly 30 of those came off his vaunted forehand side.
Compare that to Djokovic, who rarely went out of his comfort zone and nailed 27 winners to only 17 unforced errors. He responded to every Federer flurry and broke him seven times.
But Federer will be on the fast train to the grass-court tournament in Halle by Sunday, while Nadal and Djokovic will contest their fourth straight Slam final. Federer called Nadal the overwhelming factor to win the title, but he is likely overstating it, as even though Nadal has beaten Djokovic twice this year on clay, he has also taken three straight losses to the Serbian in major finals, and that might still be in his head. Djokovic has the legs and patience to stay with Nadal and at least the weapons to match up against him one great day on clay.
However, he wont find it as easy to poke into Nadal's backhand on dirt, or get as many free points off his sever, or crack inside-out forehand winners, like he can on faster surfaces. Nadal slides more comfortably into shots than he does and loves to take big swings out wide on clay where he doesn’t have to screech to a full stop.
Djokovic conceded that Court Philippe Chatrier was Nadal's house and he knows he'll have to come up with an extraordinary performance to win his fourth straight major.
The Serbian called it the ultimate challenge.
"I lost to him here, I think, three times," said Djokovic. "I haven't won a set against him in this court. All the facts are on his side. But I feel different nowadays. I believe I'm at the peak of my career. I'm playing the best tennis of my life in last year and a half, and I should use that as a confidence boost and try to get my hands on title. Why not?"
After losing to Djokovic in the 2011 Wimbledon final, Nadal's confidence was down. But at the US Open, despite a long four-set loss, he believed that he finally began to play more aggressively and pushed Djokovic to his limit. And then in their record-setting 5-hour, 53-minute clash at the Australian Open earlier this year, Nadal was convinced that he pushed Djokovic to his outer limits, even though he still lost the titanic five-setter.
He knew he was close to turning his losing streak against him around, and then in April, he stopped the seven-match skid by taking Djokovic down in the final of Monte Carlo. He then did it again in the final of Rome three weeks ago.
Nadal is confident that he can make it three in a row but is keeping his career in perspective as he goes for a record seventh Roland Garros title. It's that attitude that has allowed him to keep at an even keel and keep believing that he would one day get over on perhaps his greatest rival again.
"I won in Rome and Monte Carlo because my tennis was better against Djokovic," he said.
"The fact of beating and defeating Djokovic gave me more confidence. Sometimes you have positive streaks; sometimes you have negative streaks. They don't come out of the blue. So it's all very nice to look at things from a distance or afterwards. But one should be careful in doing this so as not to come up with misconstrued ideas. We have to look at reality. If I win a match, that's OK. If I lose one, it's due to a number of ingredients. That's life. That's sports. We shouldn't look too far or too deep for reasons sometimes."