Baseline Buzz: Djokovic's chances


PARIS -- At least there won't be pressure on Novak Djokovic come Sunday.

After all, the only things at stake for him are the world No. 1 ranking; a career Grand Slam; a seventh major title, which would tie John McEnroe and Mats Wilander, among others; and a giant leap atop the sport's pantheon.

It's a good thing Djokovic heads into what we can argue is the biggest match of his life feeling fit and fresh. Er ?

"There is nothing bothering me," Djokovic said after a languid four-set win over Ernests Gulbis in the semis. "Just the general fatigue that, you know, probably was influenced by conditions or other things that I felt today."

By his standards, that wasn't an overly laborious match for Djokovic, who played just over 2½ hours Friday. But the heat, which reached well into the 80s, clearly took its toll on the world No. 2.

"It happens, you know," Djokovic said. "It happens in the tournament, and important thing for me is that I realize what's going on. It's nothing serious. I'm going to have now two days of recovery and get ready for the final."

The good news for Djokovic is that Sunday's forecast calls for a 50 percent chance of precipitation, which would cool things off significantly.

More good news: Despite Djokovic's unconvincing semifinal, he has lost only one match on clay in 2014 and beat Rafa in the Rome final last month. And that confidence cannot be underestimated.

With that, the final we wanted is upon us. But how it will play out is anyone's guess. Jim Caple of espnW and tennis editor Matt Wilansky will give it a whirl in another spellbinding edition of the Baseline Buzz.

Wilansky: Jim, I don't know about you, but I am a big believer in momentum. We've talked and written about Nadal's ho-hum play coming into the French Open, yet here he is playing the best ball he has all season. Nadal has dropped only one set and spent nearly two hours less on court than Djokovic though six matches. As someone once said, confidence begets more confidence -- and Rafa is feeling, well, confident. Plus, there's the fact Nadal has won this thing something like eight times. So there's that.

Caple: Covering baseball, I've learned that momentum is only as good as your next starting pitcher. In tennis, however, you always have the same starter, so Big Mo is definitely on Rafa's side. As is the surface. As we have mentioned throughout the fortnight, Nadal has been virtually unbeatable here. He has won 34 matches in a row and 65 of 66 here, along with eight titles. They should rename this place Rafa Garros. He's the reason Djokovic is still looking for that elusive French title. Rafa keeps beating him. He is 5-0 against Djoker here and 22-19 for his career.

Wilansky: On clay, the stats are clearly one-sided, but the one thing Djokovic has going for him is his ability to recover. Take, for instance, the 2012 Aussie Open: Djokovic needed five sets and nearly five hours to finally take down Andy Murray in the semifinals, and, two days later, he played and beat Rafa in the final, a match that lasted a Grand Slam finals record 5 hours and 53 minutes. Of course, that was two years ago and on a different surface; nonetheless, that chain of events spoke to Djokovic's capacity not only to physically regroup but to mentally hang in there. We're going to see some rocket groundstrokes Sunday, but this match also will be won (or lost) on attrition. And I am not going to bet against Djokovic if it comes down to that.

Caple: That stamina and resilience, obviously, is thanks to his gluten-free diet. Or perhaps to growing up in Serbia during the Balkan wars, when he endured some tough conditions that he says made him mentally stronger. "From my personal experience, as much as it was devastating, it was also very helpful in terms of my mental strength," he said. "It shaped up my personality incredibly in such way that I didn't have much fear after that." He won't be nervous against Nadal; he won't back down; and he won't wear down. But that still might not be enough the way Rafa is playing this tournament and the way he always plays this tournament.

Wilansky: All true. Nadal has lost just 40 games through six matches, the third fewest he has dropped en route to a major final. Not bad for a guy who was struggling as much as he was. For Djokovic, though, he gets the gravity that will be at stake in the final. Three years ago at Wimbledon, he beat Nadal to win the title he cherished more than any other at the time and snare the top ranking. After that match, Djokovic plucked grass and shoved it into his mouth to "see how it tastes." If he wins the French, I'm wondering whether he will serve himself a dish of dirt. The granular details aside, my gut feeling is that Djokovic has never been hungrier than he is right now.

Caple: Hmmm. What would you rather taste at Roland Garros, the waffles or the clay? Most of us would opt for the waffles, but we're not as fit or driven as Djokovic. He wants to taste victory (plus he wants to avoid gluten). He also has improved against Nadal on clay. Sure, Rafa is 13-4 against Djoker on clay overall, but they are 4-4 on the stuff since Madrid 2011 and Djokovic beat him in their most recent meeting, in Rome this year. Which brings us back to your question: How important is momentum? I say that Rafa will win if the match goes four or fewer sets. But if it goes five, I think Djokovic's hunger will win out. And unlike you and me, he doesn't want waffles.

Wilansky: I suppose this is where we digress into a lesson in geophagy -- the practice of eating earthy matters. *Cringle.* Believe it or not, there are some people out there who eat dirt as a health benefit. Anyway, nutrition plans aside, the numbers say this one could be as close as the 9-7-in-the-fifth semifinal classic they played last year in Paris. As FiveThirtyEight wrote here, "Nadal has played seven percent below his normal clay level this year. Djokovic, his chief rival for tennis supremacy and his opponent on Sunday, has played 12 percent better than his typical clay level." But considering Nadal's level on clay is higher, the end result is pretty much a push. I personally think we'll know early on what kind of match we're going to be in for. Nadal will be trying to wrest control of the points with his lethal forehand. For Djokovic, we'll see how well he can stay on the baseline, take the ball early and turn defense into potent offense. On all other surfaces, this is a given. On clay, Djokovic could get caught up playing on his heels. My prediction: Nadal in four.

Caple: Then I'll go Djokovic in five. But whatever happens, I'll enjoy watching it while eating a last waffle at Roland Garros.