Can Novak topple Rafa on clay?

For tennis fans, you can’t be more excited: Novak Djokovic is the undisputed world no. 1 but, when the game shifts to the slow and dusty surface, the greatest slugger in history is Rafael Nadal.

Who will triumph in their tussle this May? Three giant tournaments loom. First, this week, the smashes will boomerang at the Spanish capital and the 29-year-old Spaniard will try to stockpile his fifth Madrid Open trophy while the Serb will attempt to collect his second (after winning in 2011).

After Madrid they hop on a plane for the 2.5-hour ride to Rome for the Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Italian Open). Then, after these twin ATP 1000 events, all netters converge in the only Grand Slam sortie disputed on clay: the French Open.

Madrid. Rome. Paris. Ahhh, three enchanting cities.

Last year, together with Jasmin and Jana, I was fortunate to have visited Rome and Paris. While the schedule did not permit us to watch Italy’s biggest tennis party at the famed Foro Italico, we were blessed to have attended a service at St. Peter’s Square with His Holiness Pope Francis.

All over Europe, you see clay courts. Unlike in America where hard courts are predominant, it’s the dirty, sluggish, slippery and red-colored flooring that’s common in that continent.

At the French Open last year, Jana, Jasmin and I chuckled like small kids entering Disneyland. Stade Roland Garros, built in 1928, is the name of the 8.5-hectare complex that houses 20 courts, including its center stage, Court Philippe Chatrier.

We visited in the early rounds and got to see all the big names. The venue is not as humongous as the U.S. Open site in New York and you can trek from side courts to the bigger stadiums in a minute or two. This year, the French Open begins its two-week-long journey on May 22.

Question: Rafa or Novak? Their rivalry is the most prolific of any two players; they’ve challenged each other 48 times with Novak leading 25-23. In terms of Grand Slam trophies won, the Spaniard beats the Serb, 14 to 11. But when we tally their respective reigns as world no. 1, it’s Novak who leads, 193 weeks (and counting) versus 141 weeks for Rafa.

At Roland Garros, here’s where it gets interesting. Nadal has won this title a preposterous nine times (beginning in 2005 when he first joined it) while Djokovic has zero.

The 28-year-old right-hander from Belgrade who stands 6-foot-2 reached the finals in 2012 and 2014 but lost both times to Nadal. Last year, after he easily dispatched of Nadal in straight sets in the quarters, he was heavily-favored to beat Stanislas Wawrinka but lost to the Swiss in the final. That painful letdown was Djokovic’s only loss in all the Grand Slam tournaments in 2015. Which means he could have won the calendar Grand Slam (all four majors in one year) had he won RG.

That was last year. This 2016, Rafa is off to a terrific start, winning Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Of their expected showdown, Rafa says, “I just follow my path and I think that Djokovic follows his. I do the best to be at my top level, and I think I’m getting closer to it. I’m trying to manage it. For the moment, I’m happy with my level.”

In Madrid this week, the two won’t get to meet until they subdue all tormentors and reach the finals.

“I think Rafa is everybody’s main rival on clay courts because of his history on this surface and the results that he’s had throughout his career,” admits Djokovic. “This year, he’s already showing a much higher quality of tennis… He’s definitely the player to beat.”

Down-playing expectations. That’s a common tactic of players so they don’t add extra pressure.

My prediction? First, I’d want nothing more than multiple Rafa-Novak finals these next few weeks. And as big of a Rafa fan as I am (like Atty. Frank Malilong), I’d have to put my bet on Djokovic. He’s beaten Rafa in their last six matches (and 11 of the last 12) and he’s never won there — which makes him extremely hungry for that first Parisian croissant.

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