• French Open, Day 13

Nadal & Djokovic head for ultimate battle

ESPN staff
June 8, 2012
Will it be Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal making history on Sunday? © PA Photos
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History beckons, but for which man: Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic?

The top two ranked players in the world will contest the French Open final on Sunday, with both on the cusp of respective landmarks.

Should six-time champion Nadal defend his crown, the Spaniard will move out on his own as the only man to have won at Roland Garros on seven occasions. However, Djokovic has his eye on sealing a remarkable feat of his own: becoming the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four grand slam titles at once.

It's the showpiece the world expected and, in the case of many, wanted, and what a match-up awaits. The pair will be meeting for a 33rd time, with Nadal bossing the head-to-head 18-14, although Djokovic is the one that has triumphed in their past three encounters in slam finals (2011 Wimbledon, 2011 US Open and this year's Australian Open). What could prove telling, however, is how the rivals stand up against one another on clay; Nadal has 11 victories to Djokovic's two on the red dirt.

After being turned over by Djokovic in a six-hour slugfest at the Australian Open earlier this year, Nadal has come back stronger than ever, winning three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events. Significantly, the 10-time grand slam winner conquered Djokovic in their most recent clash in Rome, a straight-sets success on clay giving him renewed belief that he has the capability to vanquish the seemingly impenetrable Djokovic in finals.

So, who to favour?

With his enviable record at Roland Garros - where he has only lost once (to Robin Soderling in 2009) in eight visits, it is hard to pick anyone over Nadal, even the mighty Djokovic. Against Ferrer he was merciless, breaking seven times, winning 85 per cent of first-serve points and making only 16 errors en route to a 39th victory in 43 matches in 2012.

Djokovic's numbers stack up well too: he is on a 27-match winning streak in majors - the Serb last tasting defeat against Roger Federer in last year's French Open semi-finals.

Mentally, these two warriors are the toughest on tour. They fight for every ball, when they get broken they often hit straight back, and they find a higher gear when the pressure is truly on.

Tactically, Nadal will look to unload his booming inside-out forehand wherever possible, hoping that Djokovic drops the ball short to present him with an opportunity to blast a winner. In that sense, there is probably more pressure on Djokovic to maintain his length, with Nadal a fearsome proposition marauding forward on his favourite surface.

Both men have enviable defences, although Djokovic's movement when turning defence into attack is a sight to behold. He'll look to keep the ball deep, pepper Nadal's backhand - which can occasionally misfire, before arrowing one of his trademark groundstrokes for a winner. Djokovic rarely fails with his double-handed backhand and it's this shot that could be the key to stopping Nadal moving clear of Bjorn Borg as the player to have won the most trophies on Parisian clay.

It is worth noting that Nadal has yet to drop a set and has only lost his serve once all tournament, so expect him to be the fresher of the two if it plays out like the six-hour slugfest the pair dished up in Melbourne.

History will be made one way or another, but be prepared to be put through another six nerve-shredding hours first.

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