Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will play for the French Open title on Sunday. So much has been building up to this moment, from both players, that this - their sixth meeting in Paris - felt inevitable. They have been the two best players in men's tennis for so long that we have now come to expect this final pairing. Yet, their respective paths to Roland Garros could not have been more different; Nadal suffered three clay losses and looked vulnerable on the surface for the first time in his career, whereas Djokovic has been unstoppable since Wawrinka thwarted him in Australia. Their divergent paths have shifted course toward a more equal footing. While Novak might have entered the French Open as favourite, Nadal had been inching his way back to peak form in preparation for this moment.
Rafael Nadal is 34-6 in 2014. Pretty darn good, right? Except three of those losses were on clay, at tournaments and against opponents he has dominated in the past. More troubling was the lack of confidence and accompanying tentativeness Nadal displayed during those tournaments, even while winning matches. One theory for his dip in play is that his loss to Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open final - which he was heavily favoured to win, but was betrayed by his body - crushed his spirit so badly that he was unable to mentally recover. Couple his shoddy spring play with two losses at the hands of Djokovic (Miami and Rome), and Nadal entered Roland Garros with serious questions about his chances for a ninth title. Meanwhile, Djokovic roared into Paris as the odds makers favourite for the first time in his career.
Since Djokovic came of age at the 2010 U.S Open, he's had extended periods of dominance on the ATP Tour. He won three of four Slams in 2011, and has more Slams (5) than anybody else since that time. Yet, if we liken tennis to boxing, he has been unable to crown himself the undisputed world champion. Each time he arrived at the cusp, Roland Garros knocked him back a peg or two, never able to deliver the decisive blow against Nadal on the Spaniard's favourite stage. The French Open is Novak's Achilles' heel, and Rafael Nadal has inflicted most of his pain in Paris. Roland Garros is the only Slam at which Djokovic has failed to score at least one win against Nadal. He's beaten Rafa at Masters events on red dirt, but the Spaniard has staved off all challenges from Novak in Paris.
If we omit the five matches they have played at the French Open, Djokovic leads the overall head-to-head 19-17. Their battles at Roland Garros are the difference in their rivalry; it's the one glaring hole in Nole's resume, and the tournament has morphed into a bugaboo of sorts for the world number 2. He is superb on clay, having been in position to win, but has failed year after year. Between Wimbledon 2011 and Roland Garros 2012, Nadal and Djokovic played four straight Slam finals. Novak won the first three, including a soul crushing Australian final that set all kinds of records. All eyes were then cast toward Paris - another Nole win might have broken Rafa mentally and cleared the way for Djokovic to unleash a Federer-esque reign over men's tennis. That did not happen. After an injury layoff, Nadal was able to produce one of his best seasons in 2013. The French Open has been Nadal's line in the sand: whenever a Djokovic takeover has felt unstoppable, Rafa has always been able to halt his surge on Philippe Chatrier.
There is palpable tension atop men's tennis, a feeling that something has to give with these two. Novak is again in position to topple the King of Clay. Should he win that elusive title on Sunday, he will also leave Paris with the number one ranking. Djokovic came desperately close to beating Nadal in last year's semifinal, and so close to completing his career Grand Slam. How much of the last year was spent preparing for this moment? We are also aware of Rafa's special relationship with this tournament. He has won it eight times, and if not for 2009, might have been going for a 10th straight win this weekend. His dominance at Roland Garros is unlike anything we have ever seen. Make no mistake, both men are acutely aware of what is at stake for the other come Sunday. So few tennis players know what it feels like to achieve as they have, and this final is another chance to add to their legacies.
The French Open is Nadal's dominion; Djokovic has been able to best him on other courts around the world, but Philippe Chatrier is exclusively Rafa's. Until Djokovic can beat Nadal on clay, on Philippe Chatrier, best-of-five sets, Djokovic and his fans will continue to feel the weight of that unfinished business. With each successive year that Nadal wins and Djokovic does not, both men feel the added pressure of winning and losing. Rafa and Novak should be at their best on Sunday. Nadal's game appears to be in full flow once more, and Djokovic has been largely untested thus far. What seemed like an inevitable coronation for Djokovic pre-tournament has been curtailed by Nadal's inspired play these last 12 days. The pomp has returned to his game; his groundstrokes have more purpose and his movement more fluidity. All that has happened since Australia has readied us for this moment. There will be lucky bounces and moments of misfortune. There will be blistering groundstrokes, impossible angles and oxygen sapping rallies. Most of all, this will be another banner event for men's tennis. Nadal-Djokovic may just be the greatest show in sports.