LONDON—A long fortnight later and we've got it, Nos. 1 and 2, Nole and Rafa, the Aussie Open and French Open champs respectively, the men who have, over the course of 2011, taken up residence on their own two-person tennis planet. We've seen them in Masters finals on hard courts and clay; now we'll see them at a major, on grass, on the sport's most storied 78 x 27.
I'll take a look ahead at that showdown by answering five questions posed by Tennis.com editor Ed McGrogan.
Is this the match we needed to see after the events of the spring?
I think it's fair to say that, because as much as these guys have achieved in 2011, there's some unfinished business on both ends. Djokovic beat Nadal in four consecutive finals, including two on Nadal's beloved clay; but after losing to Roger Federer in Paris, the Serb had to watch from the sidelines as Nadal walked away with his sixth French Open title. On the flip side, despite having won three of the last four majors, Nadal, even as he was playing one of the finest matches of his career yesterday against Andy Murray, knew that he had been displaced by Djokovic at No. 1 a few hours earlier.
Now, finally, streaks and Masters titles and rankings can be forgotten and everything settled on the court, in the place where champions are traditionally measured.
What's the more important stat: That Djokovic has beaten Nadal in four finals this season, or that Nadal is 5-0 against Djokovic at Slams?
At this point, coming into this match, it's the latter stat that matters most. If, say, Djokovic were 1-5 in majors against Rafa, it might be a toss-up, because he would have at least proven that he can beat him when everyone is watching, when history is in the making, and over the course of three out of five sets. But as much as Djokovic has done this year—and his wins in those four finals shook Nadal's confidence in a way I hadn't seen before—he still hasn't proven that. Nadal has beaten him at Wimbledon, the French, and at last year's U.S. Open in a heavy hitting four-setter. This doesn't mean that Djokovic can't turn that around—he was closer than the score indicated at Flushing Meadows—but it does mean that Nadal comes in as someone who is already an all-time great, a career Slammer, a Made Man. Psychologically, he begins a step ahead, because he knows he can do it here against Djokovic; Djokovic doesn't yet know the reverse.
What's the most critical shot for each player if they are to win?
For Nadal, it's the backhand. In their clay-court matches this spring, Djokovic was able to pound that side, get a moderate-to-weak reply, and then go hard with his own backhand for crosscourt winners. Nadal's backhand is a barometer of his confidence; the forehand is always going to be there, but the backhand's effectiveness—its depth, pace and consistency—can fluctuate. The good news for him is that the pace of grass typically helps his two-hander. Tthe best he has ever hit it was here in 2008, and he has shown some of that type of flattening-the-ball-out form over these two weeks.
It's harder to say with Djokovic. Everything is important to his game, but nothing stands out because it's all so solid. I would say that the shot he needs to hit well is also his backhand. It has been a crucial weapon for him against Nadal this year, allowing him to step forward and negate the Spaniard's go-to play, the heavy crosscourt forehand.
But Djokovic can usually count on his backhand. Iffier, traditionally, has been his serve. It has been perhaps the biggest reason for his 2011 surge, and he'll likely need to call on it to get him out of a jam or three on Sunday. If he's hitting it well, it could be, as they say, the difference-maker in the match, the way Federer's serve has been on various occasions here in the past, including in the 2007 final against Rafa.
If Djokovic wins, he'll earn his first Wimbledon, third major, and become the first player other than Roger Federer to beat Nadal in a Grand Slam final. How should we be discussing Djokovic, if that comes to pass?
This is a step-up match for Djokovic. If he wins, he won't only do all of the things you mention, he'll also prove to himself that his loss at the French Open was an aberration rather than a return to the norm. His rise will continue, and he'll feel fully like a No. 1 player.
As far as the historical aspect, it will change him as well. I said earlier that Nadal, like Federer, is a Made Man in terms of his place in tennis history. Djokovic, despite his two Aussie Opens, isn't there yet, but if he beats Nadal at Wimbledon his case begins to get much stronger. You can then start to talk about him as more than a single-season or single-streak wonder. You can begin to talk about him as the next great champion, a possible future for the men's game.
Who will in, and in how many sets?
Nadal in five.