Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic preview: Drop shot could be key to outcome of French Open final
Rafa Nadal likes to be way behind the baseline but will grapple with Novak Djokovic's likely drop shot attack - Getty Images
The drop shot kite. That's what they called Albert Portas, a top 20 player at the turn of the 21st century who kept pulling his opponent forward with cute little touch shots. At this year's French Open, the title could be transferred to Novak Djokovic.
Unusually, will Djokovic start as an outsider or an outsider? - in the final on Sunday. This is his hegemony over world tennis. This only happens when he faces Rafael Nadal in the Philippe Chatrier square - the stadium he referred to as "Rafa's house" on Friday night.
This is where his not-so-secret weapon comes in. Djokovic has been honing his drop shot since he hit the cold, damp clay a little over two weeks ago. It's a high-risk trick, and when he kept bringing it out at the start of the event - against lower-ranking players who were struggling to deal with his bread-and-butter whipping, let alone those delicacies - he had the feeling that he was doing it might get carried away.
But on Friday night, when Djokovic faced an inflated opponent in the fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, all this preparation was useful. Again and again Tsitsipas was pulled towards the net, a fish hit the end of a line. He barely made it in time. And Djokovic's 17 successful droppers meant he finished this exciting five-seater with a total of 172 points, as opposed to Tsitsipas' 149.
For Nadal, who loves hanging meters behind the baseline and rolling up his Lassoo forehand, Djokovic's drop shot is an uncomfortable mystery. Is he further ahead, where he could be caught by his opponent's growling basic strokes? Or put on those diving boots, go deep into the place, and hope that its phenomenal acceleration will help it find more drippers than tsitsipas?
Djokovic defeated Tsitsipas in the semifinals thanks to 17 successful droppers - AP
In any case, you have to applaud Djokovic for continuing to add new wrinkles to his game. The thinking behind this latest gasp is usually sharp. He knows that this year's new Wilson balls are heavier than last year's Babolats, and that the cold temperatures and rickety clay will keep the jump to a minimum.
Djokovic is the Moriarty of tennis and always sees at least one step further than his rivals. Many see him as an antihero, but one has to admire his tireless dedication and ingenuity.
Tomorrow's finale will go a long way towards making Djokovics 2020 remembered: for good or bad. Right now the overall judgment is likely a hanging jury.
In that bizarre year he made more headlines than the other tennis players in the world combined. Everything started predictably enough in Australia in January, where he drove Serbia to victory in the first ATP Cup and then brought Dominic Thiem to the first slam of the season.
But then it got a little strange. Djokovic's strange views on medicine - he believes gluten intolerance will weaken your muscles the moment you pick up a slice of bread - have been highlighted by the pandemic.
He voiced public skepticism about vaccines - the leading Serbian epidemiologist politely suggested keeping silent - and then headed an exhibition event in the Balkans that resulted in four leading players signing Covid-19, including himself.
Even when the players gathered in New York in mid-August to promise a month of uncomplicated hitting the ball, Djokovic still caused controversy. He enraged the people who run the men's tour by creating a new players' association. And then, most dramatically, he eliminated himself from the US Open by accidentally punching a line woman in the throat.
A tough year for the world's number 1? Maybe, but also an incredibly dominant one. After 38 games, meeting Pablo Carreno Busta in the fourth round in the New York tournament remains the only mistake. Had it not been for the temperament that earned him his first major failure in 30 years, he would probably have won an 18th title at this level. Even now, he remains on the path to 2020 without losing to anyone but the Grand Slam rulebook.
There are more numbers revolving around this game than the National Lottery drawing machines. A win for Djokovic would make him the first man to complete the double career slam in the Open era - for which each of the four majors has to be won twice. It would earn him the 18th major too, one less than Nadal.
A win for Nadal would give him 20 - and with it Roger Federer's record. But everyone knows who Federer himself will put down roots for. He sees Nadal as the yin to his yang. It is believed that he sees Djokovic as a wild gooseberry.
After the semi-finals, former world number one Jim Courier spoke about ITV4 and was delighted with the prospect of another collision - the 56th at Tour level - between the two best-equipped players on the field.
"There is so much at stake," he said. “It's just great to see these two great players doing it again here at Roland Garros in the final when so much happens. "It will be difficult to score," added Courier. “It's going to be colder on Sunday and I think the drop shot will be key for both of them. Rafa feels a little more comfortable with the forehand drop shot and Novak feels a little more comfortable with the backhand. We'll definitely look for that in the final. "
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