When Roger Federer first rose to prominence, laying waste to the top names of the early-'00s (Andy Roddick, Leyton Hewitt, Marat Safin), it was easy to quickly wonder … how exactly does somebody top him? Even when he began to consistently fall to Rafael Nadal at the French Open (2005 semifinals, 2006-08 finals), it was still difficult to figure out how a player could be constructed to prevent him from winning the other three majors. He was too creative, too consistently strong. To beat him, a player would have to match him offensively and have the speed and fitness to chase down his best shots.
Nadal turned himself into that player. He combined his natural skills, which were good enough to quickly make him the favorite at Roland Garros every year, with a better mental game, better confidence and perhaps the best point-crafting ability tennis has seen in a very long time. While the rest of the game still attempted to catch up with Federer, suddenly Federer had to try to catch up to Nadal.
Nadal fought injuries from time to time (it is difficult to watch his physical style and not assume he will break down occasionally) but when healthy, he was nearly untouchable. He won three of four majors in 2010, and suddenly the same questions we were asking about Federer just a couple of years earlier -- how exactly do you take him out? -- applied to the young Spaniard. To beat Nadal, one had to combine the best defense on the planet, not to mention a serious level of fitness, with the ability to flip the switch from defense to offense in an instant.
For years, Novak Djokovic had the defense and a solid all-around offensive game, but his fitness, both mental and physical, were not where they needed to be. But after falling to Nadal in four sets (6-2 in the fourth) at the 2010 U.S. Open, he went back to the drawing board. He gave up gluten. He started recovering in a hyperbaric chamber. He got really, really fit. He had enough natural ability that he was already regarded as the third-best player in the world; but once he added extreme fitness to his game, everything came together. He won over 40 straight matches to start 2011, he surged to No. 1, and he has won four of the last five slams. He has defeated Nadal in each of the last three finals. He is fearless, fit, and, even when he isn't at the top of his game (and he hasn't been for much of the French Open), he is impossible to take out. If you cut off his head, he would still save four match points.
So here we are. For the fourth straight slam, Djokovic and Nadal are meeting in the finals. If Djokovic wins, he completes the "Djokovic slam," holding all four slam titles at once. If Nadal wins, he takes home a record seventh French Open title, passing Bjorn Borg and all but clinching "best clay-court player ever" status. Nadal has been incredible over the past fortnight; he has not dropped a set, and he has barely come close to losing one, dropping just 35 games in 15 sets. Djokovic, meanwhile, has looked downright mortal. He dropped the first two sets of his fourth-round match against Andreas Seppi before rallying, and he had to fend off four match points before defeating Jo-Wilifried Tsonga in the quarterfinals. He did weather some windy conditions and take out Federer in straight sets in the semis, but still, this is quite easily Nadal's best opportunity to chalk up another slam title. Following a five-set loss to Djokovic in Australia, he has won the last two meetings of the series, and he is 11-2 all-time versus Djokovic on clay. This series has seen quite a few plot twists in recent years, and another one might await on Sunday.
Prediction: Nadal in four sets.