Novak Djokovic - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Eight

This article originally appeared on the Australian Open website at http://www.australianopen.com.  You can continue to find more Roland Garros coverage by me there in the coming days.

Nadal:  Since an injury-induced exit in Australia, the Spaniard has not lost before the final in six successive tournaments and not fallen to anyone except Djokovic.  Virtually no conceivable foe should block a healthy Rafa’s path to the climactic Sunday, therefore, and Nadal can take solace from his perfect record in majors against the Serb who has baffled him at Masters events.  In a best-of-five marathon, his competitive stamina might allow him to outlast Djokovic, who has a far less storied Slam resume.  Moreover, the two-week sprawl of a major includes more twists and turns than the condensed Masters format, so Nadal can hope that his path to a sixth Paris crown may not intersect with his nemesis.  Until it does, he should prevent his anxiety over their rivalry from depleting his confidence against earlier opponents.

Djokovic:  All things must come to an end, including a winning streak that has featured seven victories over the eclipsed Nadal and Federer.  But, even after the Indian Wells-Miami double, Djokovic has shown scant sign of fatigue while expelling the world #1 from clay citadels in Rome and Madrid.  Should they meet in the final, he will possess a vast psychological advantage from those four Masters 1000 finals, much more recent than his Roland Garros losses to Nadal.  And Djokovic cleverly solved the challenge posed by a best-of-five format in Australia—he won all but one of his matches in three sets.  The world #2 enters Roland Garros as the slight favorite unless his knee betrays him or his motivation plummets, unlikely in a tournament where he can snatch the top ranking.

Federer:  His record in 2011 sums up his situation:  0-5 against the top two, 28-2 against everyone else.  While Federer has won sets from Nadal and Djokovic, his graceful game has looked outmoded and his body language too muted during those crucial meetings.  When he does attack them with conviction, he can win sets but lacks the consistency to execute high-risk tactics throughout an entire match.  Still intimidating to most opponents, Federer continues to rely upon his experience to withstand dangerous dark horses.  Nevertheless, he never won more than a set from Nadal at Roland Garros in his prime, so three sets seems well beyond his reach now.  Nor does he have the weapons to combat Djokovic’s balanced baseline assault, not winning a set in their Melbourne semifinal despite a generally crisp performance.

Murray:  Perhaps the greatest surprise of the clay-court season sprang from the Scot’s semifinals in Monte Carlo and Rome.  The only player to serve for a match against Djokovic this year, Murray also won a set from Nadal as he awakened from his post-Melbourne malaise.  He will rue the double faults that cost him a potentially career-changing victory over the Serb, but the Scot must emerge from their three-hour battle with his confidence restored.  As Wimbledon looms, Murray would benefit from an encouraging Paris fortnight before he shoulders the perennial expectations of his compatriots.  Improving his clay movement and striking his forehand more assertively, he must concentrate on maintaining an optimistic attitude, often the difference between success and failure for the Scot.

Soderling:  Lately blunted by illness and injury, the giant-slaying Swede overcame Verdasco and Almagro in Rome before winning just three games from Djokovic.  His indifferent preparation should not cause concern, for Soderling displayed equally unimpressive form in his last two trips through the European spring—before he arrived at Roland Garros and halted the title defenses of Nadal and Federer.  Although his unpredictability may prevent him from winning a major, Soderling has the capacity to shatter a seemingly predestined narrative with his bone-crushing groundstrokes and defiant self-belief.

Berdych / Melzer:  Semifinalists at Roland Garros last year, they look unlikely to repeat those feats.  Melzer collected an impressively poised win over Federer at Monte Carlo, yet he has wilted under the spotlight of the Slams since last year’s breakthrough and faded swiftly at Rome and Madrid.  More consistent than in his wayward past, Berdych won a set from Djokovic in Dubai and Nadal in Miami.  On clay, though, he could not conquer flavors of the week Bellucci and Gasquet, or even the decaying Ljubicic.  Failing to embrace his lofty status last year, the Czech still lacks the steely core necessary to win a major.

Ferrer:  Twice a runner-up to Nadal this year, the Spaniard would have won a Roland Garros title had Rafa never emerged.  His remorselessly grinding game can wear down anyone outside the top three, against whom he lacks the offensive explosiveness (especially with his serve) to win three sets on clay.

Del Potro:  A set away from the 2009 final, the gentle giant rebounded from wrist surgery with startling alacrity, only to suffer a leg injury that jeopardizes his Paris plans and squelches hope of an improbable title.  Should he arrive in the City of Light, however, darkness could descend upon one of the contenders as early as the third round.

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