PARIS -- Novak Djokovic has won 27 matches in a row at Grand Slam tournaments. If he can make that 28 by beating Rafael Nadal in Sunday's French Open final, Djokovic will earn a fourth consecutive major title, something no man has accomplished since 1969.
Tough to imagine someone so close to such a historic achievement being an underdog, yet that's exactly the case for Djokovic.
Even the 25-year-old Serb says so.
"You can say that he's a favorite, definitely," Djokovic conceded.
Really? Even though Djokovic beat Nadal in each of the past three Grand Slam finals?
Well, yes. Because as good as Djokovic is on all surfaces and in all settings at the moment, no one ever has been as good as Nadal is on the red clay of Roland Garros. Set aside that Nadal owns 10 Grand Slam titles overall, twice as many as Djokovic, and simply consider the 26-year-old Spaniard's superb French Open bona fides.
While Djokovic hopes to complete a "Novak Slam" – only two other men in the century-plus annals of tennis have been the reigning champion at all four Grand Slam tournaments simultaneously – Nadal seeks his record seventh trophy at the French Open. Only Nadal and Bjorn Borg have won the title six times.
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Overcoming his shyness, Nadal is addressing the crowd at Roland Garros in French, Spanish, English and seemingly some Catalan.
Djokovic double faults
Nadal rips several strong forehands until the point is his. Here we go!
Nadal dives out of the way of a long hit back Djokovic.
Nadal digs out a few tough shots well behind the baseline before Djokovic puts the point away emphatically.
Short rally and Djokovic hits a long backhand.
He's on the edge. But Nadal puts a forehand into the net. 15-0.
Both players charging in to save the point but ultimately Djokovic puts a shot long trying to take advantage of Nadal's position. That's 6-5 to Nadal in the fourth set. It's another chance to end it coming up.
The topic of conversation remains the previous point in the NBC booth. But Nadal gets back in front in his service game.
Nadal looking to the clay, seems to stop playing looking for a wide call. Djokovic hits winner. 30-15.
Nadal takes the first went Djokovic goes wide and then aces him for 30-0.
The sun has broke through and Nadal has the serve.
Nadal running side to side, eventually undone on this point. Crowd roaring for Djokovic... and more tennis.
A powerful backhand up the line for Djokovic sets up an overhead smash. He leads the game.
Djokovic serving... first serve long..
Nadal is one win away. And Mr. Fraser, the rain delay guru is patrolling the court. Ruh roh.
|@ paugasol : Muy emocionante el partido!! Aunque empieza a llover. Very exciting the game!! Although it's started to rain a little. http://t.co/aqJUOLMV|
Crowd making noise for Djokovic as he serves himself level in the fourth set. The rain is back and the pressure seems to be shifting toward Nadal to close this out rather than Djoker to stay alive.
|@ WeAreTennis : As the rain comes, Rafa's get out of his chair, in a hurry! 4/3 #RG12|
That's 4-3 in fourth set. Djokovic talking to himself and increasingly frustrated as loss looms.
Nadal firing balls deep against Djokovic and catches him running the wrong way on a winner. 30-0.
A ruling by the chair umpire gives Djokovic the win on his serve. Rafa unhappy but we're level at 3-3 in 4th set.
He rolls in his first service game, not surrendering a point. That's 2 straight to resume and a 3-2 lead in fourth set. Was Djokovic's resurgence in third set as simple as the rain?
Nadal breaks Djokovic in the first game back. It's 2-2 in the fourth set and Nadal is set to serve.
Djokovic attacking Nadal's forehand, deep, but he keeps digging it out. Nadal earns break chance when Djokovic puts a shot into the net. Djoker slams racquet against his head in frustration.
Nadal edges ahead in first game back when Djokovic fires wide to end a rally.
Djokovic is serving up a break in the fourth set.
Nadal and Djokovic are warming each other up after getting their picture snapped at the net.
It's 1 p.m. in Paris and 7 a.m. on the East Coast.
All told, Nadal is 51-1 at his favorite tournament, including 3-0 against Djokovic, who's never before reached the final in Paris.
"He has lost, what, two matches in his career here?" Djokovic asked during a news conference after eliminating 16-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer in the semifinals.
As reporters began to correct Djokovic's count, he continued: "One? That says enough, I mean, about his quality on this court. ... I haven't won a set against him in this court. All the facts are on his side."
Nadal's only loss came against Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. And, amazingly, Nadal might be better than ever. He has won every set he's played over the past two weeks, losing a total of only 35 games through six matches, the lowest total for a player getting to the final at any major tournament since Borg's 31 at the 1980 French Open. Nadal has won 71 of 72 service games, saving 18 of 19 break points.
"His position on the court is better. His serve is better in this tournament. And his backhand is so much better," said Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and coach. "It's also about his head, knowing when to come forward more, play more aggressive."
Djokovic, it must be said, keeps getting better, too.
It's been more than a year since he lost a Grand Slam match against anyone, anywhere: June 3, 2011, in the French Open semifinals, when Federer snapped Djokovic's 41-0 start to last season.
Since then, Djokovic has gone 7 for 7 on the grass courts at Wimbledon in late June and July, then 7 for 7 on the hard courts at the U.S. Open in late August and September, then 7 for 7 on another type of hard courts at the Australian Open in January, and 6 for 6 so far on the clay courts at the French Open in late May and June.
That sort of consistency and versatility is rather rare.
Only Don Budge in 1938, and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969, have won four Grand Slam tournaments in succession. Budge and Laver went 4 for 4 within a calendar year each time; Djokovic's feat wouldn't quite equal theirs, therefore. On the other hand, Budge and Laver didn't need to master four different playing surfaces.
Since that last Grand Slam 43 years ago, the closest any man came was when Federer twice compiled 27-match winning streaks at major tournaments and needed to win the French Open final to close the deal. His opponent in those 2006 and 2007 finals? Nadal, of course.
Maybe that's why Federer, asked to weigh in with a prediction for Sunday, replied: "I obviously pick Rafa. I think he's the overwhelming favorite."
Easy to forget, perhaps, given his utter dominance of late, but there was a time when Djokovic was not nearly as strong of body and mind as he is now.
He quit during his second-round match at the 2005 French Open. He stopped after losing the first two sets of his 2006 French Open quarterfinal against Nadal, citing a bad back. An infected blister on a toe was the reason given when Djokovic pulled out of his 2007 Wimbledon semifinal while trailing Nadal again. While losing a match against Federer at the Monte Carlo tournament in 2008, Djokovic stopped again, complaining of dizziness and a sore throat.
But a new dedication to fitness and a gluten-free diet have helped Djokovic. So has a self-belief that he says stems from leading Serbia to the Davis Cup title in December 2010.
"I feel different nowadays. I believe I'm at the peak of my career," Djokovic said. "I'm playing the best tennis of my life in last year and a half."
Now, for Grand Slam history, all he needs to do is win once more.
Won't be easy, though.
"Going to be a difficult match for me," Nadal said. "Hopefully, for him, too."
Indian Wells Masters 2007
Montreal Masters 2007
French Open 2007
French Open 2008
Rome Masters 2009
ATP World Tour Finals 2009
US Open 2010
Miami Final 2011
Italian Open 2012
Australian Open 2012
French Open 2012
Monte Carlo 2013