Novak Djokovic (1) vs Rafael Nadal (6)
“I think that’s why you and I don’t see eye-to-eye sometimes, Jack — because you’re a man of science.”
“Yeah, and what does that make you?”
“Me, well, I’m a man of faith.”
That discussion comes from the TV show “Lost,” the often-brilliant, always-controversial show about castaways who were forced to live together or die alone. As stern leader Jack Shepherd and the spiritual John Locke debate over the course of the show, is the island just something that happened to these people or is there a reason their flight crashed? Jack’s mission revolves around doing what it takes for his people to survive until they can figure out how to get home. On the other hand, Locke believes in the concept of destiny and that the castaways are being tested by the island.
As the drama has built through 2015 to the inevitable annual showdown in Paris between world #1 Novak Djokovic and nine-time Roland Garros champion Rafa Nadal, the debate has progressively echoed the philosophical differences between Jack and Locke.
Djokovic has become the massive favorite due to his overwhelming recent success. He has played five top level tournaments this year (Australian Open plus four of the five Masters 1000s, skipping Madrid to rest), winning all of them. His only loss since Australia came against Roger Federer on a fast indoor court in Dubai, practically the polar opposite of the slow red clay of Court Philippe Chatrier. In his prime at 28 years old, even people who swore they would never pick against the King of Clay until they saw Nadal lose again find themselves overwhelmed with factual evidence that this is finally Djokovic’s time to complete his career Grand Slam.
It makes all the sense in the world, considering Nadal only has one minor title in the year since defeating Djokovic in last year’s final. He fell out of the top five for the first time in eons due a few factors. A freak wrist injury forced him to vacate 4,000 ranking points from sweeping the main events of the US Open Series in 2013 (the first and only time a member of the Big Four has won Canada, Cincinnati and the US Open in the same year). Then appendicitis wrecked the remainder of his season.
Unlike past comebacks, Nadal didn’t immediately find his form. Like all athletes after injury, his fitness took time, and then he admitted to battling nerves, an honest confession from the most renowned competitor in the history of the sport. In not winning any European clay court events for the first time in over a decade, his lack of definitive success left his past accolades as the best argument for future success. He was adamant after losses that he was close to being back and he has indeed seemingly found his game again thus far in the tournament, though the lower level quality of opponent has left skeptics unconvinced.
It is for good reason Djokovic is the favorite. The weather is not projected to be hot enough as to favor Nadal. He has won five of the last six matches versus Rafa and matches up perfectly against him, as his backhand holds strong against that fearsome lefty forehand. Going by both stats and the eye ball test, Novak should win this match (and the tournament).
And yet, we’ve been here before. Djokovic was up a break in the fifth set of their 2013 semifinal epic. Nadal scratched and clawed, proving too difficult to put away. Nole was on the brink of taking a lead in the 2013 US Open final, only for Rafa to quickly turn the tables. Most recently, Djokovic won the first set in last year’s final at the French. Nadal came back and won the match, becoming the first player to ever beat the Serb in a final after dropping the opening set.
Nadal is the only player on tour who can go toe-to-toe with the world #1. Djokovic goes through unfocused stretches where his game is oddly out of calibration, especially in best-of-five, which prevents maxing out on energy for the whole match. However, Federer can no longer physically take advantage of that and Andy Murray can’t match him mentally, at least not in the last couple years.
Again, all of the recent body of work supports Djokovic. The factors that point to Nadal are more about intangibles. That he simply doesn’t lose at this event and his resilience will show over five sets and four hours. That wanting this title so bad will again make Djokovic tighten up and play below his best. That the uniquely big court will continue to pay dividends for Rafa’s scrambling defense. That the confluence of all these elements creates a dynamic that tips the scales ever so slightly in Nadal’s favor, explaining why he’s won the last four Grand Slam clashes between the two, three of those coming in Paris.
The question for this match revolves around what you believe in: science or faith?
The call: Both are fighting against history. Nadal is attempting to win the tournament for a sixth straight time, something no man has ever done at any major in the Open Era. Meanwhile, Djokovic is aiming to become the first man in over 20 years to win the Australian and the French in the same season. For the first time in their seven French Open meetings, I won’t surprised if Djokovic takes the win. My pick though is Rafa outlasting Nole in five.
Andy Murray (3) vs David Ferrer (7)
This match is the definitive undercard tomorrow, but it could be every bit as grueling for the participants. Due to a lack of firepower, Ferrer has struggled mightily in his career facing the Big Four (0-16 against Federer, 2-19 on clay versus Nadal, nine match losing streak against Djokovic), but he has enjoyed some success versus Murray. While the head-to-head has heavily tilted toward Murray since 2011, Ferrer did defeat him in their only meeting at Roland Garros (2012 quarters), take a set off him at Wimbledon in a close match that same year and nearly claimed a tight three-set Miami final in 2013. Ferrer isn’t in his prime anymore, though he’s at home on the clay while Murray hadn’t even reached a clay final until winning two titles this season. Similar to the Djokovic/Nadal match, the choice comes down to the more in-form player or siding with who has the surface advantage.
The call: Murray in five.
Serena Williams (1) vs Sara Errani (17)
Serena has needed comebacks in her last three matches make the quarters, but no such theatrics will be necessary in this one. Whereas Vika Azarenka and Sloane Stephens are talented players in the midst of returning to form, Errani lacks anything close to their capabilities, even on clay, her best surface. The dirt hasn’t helped the Italian at all in their history, as she’s never beaten Serena. Her lack of power, especially on the serve, gets absolutely pummeled.
The call: One way traffic. Williams coasts in straights.
Timea Bacsinszky (23) vs Alison Van Uytvanck (unseeded)
Enjoying her best season after an improbable comeback to the sport, Bacsinszky continued her rise by weathering the power of two of the biggest hitters on tour, Madison Keys and Petra Kvitova, in back-to-back matches. After quitting the sport, she’s back at nearly 26 years old and has already notched four wins over top ten opponents in 2015. She’s seeded just 23rd here, but that’s deceiving, as a win would put her comfortably into the top ten in the year-to-date rankings. Van Uytvanck is an unknown, one of the more anonymous quarterfinalists in recent memory. This run at Roland Garros, in which she’s faced only one seed, #32 Zarina Diyas, comprises almost all of her career prize money and will slice her ranking nearly in half, as she’ll move from inside the top 100 to within the confines of the top 50 regardless of this match.
The call: Bacsinszky advances to face Williams in the semis.