French Open men’s final preview: everything on the line, for Djoker and Nadal

6 Jun


Sunday’s French Open men’s final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic could not have higher stakes. Rafa, the top seed and eight-time champion in Paris, is playing to defend his throne at Stade Roland Garros, where he has accumulated an otherworldly 65-1 record, and take an important step toward matching Roger Federer’s all-time mark for major titles, by moving from 13 to fourteen, which would put him three shy of Fed’s record haul of 17. Although tennis watchers disagree on whether Nadal has enough left in the tank physically to tie or surpass Federer, everyone agrees that doing so would require a couple more titles, at least, at the French. So, for Rafa, one can reasonably argue that winning on Sunday represents a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for eclipsing the Swiss on the totem poll of major champions.

Djokovic has a lot on the line, as well. By winning on Sunday, the Serb would regain the world’s number one ranking, become the first player to beat Nadal in a French Open final, and collect his seventh major title overall. But, in the opinion of one Balke Bro, the lengthy dynamo from Belgrade is playing for much more. Djokovic is not yet one of tennis’ all-time greats. If you stopped time today, historians of the game would probably place him, justifiably, in that awe-inspiring, but not quite elite, class that includes players like John McEnroe, Stephan Edberg, Mats Vilander, and Ivan Lendl. These players were obviously incredible. But most people don’t, nor should they, classify them as belonging to the meta-level of tennis brillaince occupied by the likes of Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Rafael Nadal, Roy Emerson and Rod Laver. If he continued the current trajectory of his career, Djokovic would retire known as a guy who was one of the greatest Australian Open champions of all-time, spent a good bit of time, but not a ton, at number one, and racked up a nice collection of Masters titles along with a smattering of non-Aussie Open majors.

The problem is, while those are good accolades, they’re not great, for three reasons: a) there’s an unspoken understanding that the major in Melbourne is the red-headed step-child of grand slams – we all know winning there is not as important as winning in London, Paris, or New York; b) in terms of tennis greatness, being number one doesn’t matter nearly as much as winning majors – it’s nice to get there but doesn’t count for much unless you’ve spent more time there than anybody else, in which case you’ve probably also won a slew of majors, which is what really counts; and c) the price of admission into tennis immortality has risen so absurdly high that, today, you need to win like twelve majors to even be in the conversation. On his current trajectory, Djoker won’t get there. But with a win on Sunday against Rafa, in the Spaniard’s throne at Chatrier, Djokovic can start a domino effect that this Balke Bro thinks will springboard him into his rightful (rightful, because he’s got the game and the mental mojo for it) place among tennis’ all-time best.

But there is an intra-Balke Bro debate on this. Although we usually like to bring you pieces in clear and pristine fashion, below, you’ll find a sort of stream-of-consciousness exchange between the two of us in which we debate the extent to which Sunday’s final represents the biggest match of Djoker’s career to date. We also look at what’s on the line for Rafa. Enjoy, and let us know what you think!

Patrick (P): Ouch (with respect to the Rafa-Murray beatdown).
Daniel (D): Domination. Andy didn’t show. Rafa forehand a missile.
P: El rey del rojo
D: We’ll see, pookie
P: The jacket lies in the balance (referring to a jacket over which we share joint-custody, whose ownership hinges on the result of Sunday’s final; P has called Rafa; D has called Djoker)
D: Yep. Every day on court is different.
P: Thats why four straight doesnt matter to me
D: Right. (Which could of course refer to Djok (head-to-head win streak against Rafa) or Raf (at French) win streak
P: Exactly.
D: P.S. This is the biggest match of Djokovic’s career.
P: Itll definitely be one for the ages
D: No but I mean, this is career-defining.
P: How so more than say the 2012 final?
D: He can take a step toward becoming one of the greats (which he is not yet), or he can remain one of the best Aussie Open champions who ever lived.
P: Or perhaps the french next year? Or wimbledon this year? I feel any non aussie slam hes played since 2011 have been huge. Theyve traded the one ranking around, hes racked up masters, just hasnt really made too much noise. Every slam hes played has had the same stakes, and its not like this is his last chance. Im not convinced thats a reason hes any hungrier this year.
D: Because he’s done nothing of note since 2011. And the clock’s ticking. Plus, taking down a healthy rafa on his home turf, at his palace, would be super meaningful. No one’s ever done it. No one who is in conversation as more than a one and done.
P: ROBIN (Soderling, who remains the only person to ever beat Rafa at the French)!!!
D: Haha. He (Djoker) has won exactly zero non-aussie slams since 2011, no one cares about masters, and history doesn’t care about number one unless you’ve been it more than any one else which he’s not even close to
P: Exactly. Every slam since 2011 has carried these same stakes. He hasnt come thru. No reason this will be any different for those reasons. Played nadal here in 12 and lost, lost to murray twice in finals, stani in australia. He comes up short time and again. In ’12 he coulda had the career slam, that woulda been career defining. And its not like rafa doesnt have history to chase, would automatically make him an all-time great.
D: ’12 didn’t have as much pressure because two years have passed and the clock is ticking. He needs to start winning now. Beating Rafa Sunday, at the French
P: I think clocks ticking way more on rafa than novak is why im not convinced
D: The reason this year is more important than ’12 is because in ’12 he was riding a streak in which he’d won four of the last five majors and was clearly the best in the world. Really nothing to prove. Now, with the results not having come the way they did in the past, and with the clock ticking, and with no assurance he’ll have a chance to knock out rafa on a similar stage with stakes so high, he can and needs to make his move into the ranks of tennis immortality.
P: Thats all very dramatic but i imagine being the first consec slam since laver woulda thrust him into immortality.
D: It would’ve. But it didn’t happen. So, here we are.
P: With someone with a less than stellar track record with immortality on the line. Against rafa at chatrier.
D: They both understand the stakes. Rafa can’t catch Roger w/out multiple more wins at the French. Losing to Djoker would see the seeds of doubt start to seep in for future.
P: Yep. Unless he wins out this year haha
D: So, big for the Spaniard, as well. Still would be shy of Fed. But in much more comfortable shape, I agree.


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