So here comes the match of the year, Sunday at — p.m. Paris time, 9 a.m. New York time, No. — Roger Federer vs. No. 2 Rafael Nadal, French Open men's final, clay, intrigue, gravitas, and already some history.
Federer made history Friday in the obscure category of match previewing.
He retained his previous distinction as perhaps the only person ever to answer honestly the who-would-you-rather-play question.
For decades, players and coaches have reached for the just-glad-to-be-there answer, but while Nadal still slugged it out with Novak Djokovic in the second semifinal, Federer got frank and got laughs.
"I mean, I probably prefer Djokovic, to be honest," he said. "Never lost against the guy, and the guy has never played a Grand Slam final.
"So that would be stupid to say the other guy."
Ladies and gentlemen, candor!
For while Federer strains year upon year to win the only Grand Slam title trophy he lacks, the idea he'd be better off playing anybody but Nadal is really quite demonstrable.
Nadal stood 5-0 on clay against Federer before Federer beat him May 20 in the final at Hamburg, Germany. Nadal beat Federer in the 2005 French Open semifinals, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. Nadal beat Federer in the 2006 French Open final, 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4). In Federer's last 55 Grand Slam matches, Nadal is the only person to beat him.
Nadal hails from Spain but owns a chunk of France, standing 20-0 on the premises of Roland Garros, from a straight-set win over Lars Burgsmuller in the first round in 2005, through two titles to Friday's straight-set win over Djokovic, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2, in the semifinals.
Nadal is the first man since Jim Courier in 1993 to reach three consecutive French Open finals and already stands 33-0 in best-of-five-sets matches on clay.
Nadal has won all 18 sets in this tournament, only one in a tiebreaker, that in the quarterfinals against the Australian alley cat Lleyton Hewitt.
Nadal says Federer, who defeated Nikolay Davydenko, 7-5, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (9-7), on Friday, is the favorite.
Nadal would be batty.
Asked if anyone would beat Nadal here, Hewitt said, "Not really. I think the conditions here suit him well, here in Paris, probably more so than the court in Hamburg where Roger beat him. It bounces around a lot more out there, which I think helps Nadal a lot more.
"Yeah, I think, the ball was probably in Roger's zone a little bit more, that hitting zone, especially on the backhand side, in Hamburg. Which if Nadal uses it right here, I think he's going to be tough to beat."
Djokovic thought Federer's 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 win in Hamburg cracks open things a bit, but said, "I would put Rafa as a favorite."
Federer chimed in, "I mean, he has already won the title twice, so I'd say he is a favorite."
Rarely do favorites encounter somebody playing in a record eighth consecutive Grand Slam final, as will Federer, or hunting a 28th straight Grand Slam match victory, as does Federer, or seeking a place alongside Andre Agassi, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Don Budge as the only men to win all four Grand Slams, as does Federer.
But that's the French Open for you, so snooty with its exacting clay that it alone kept Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Jimmy Connors from the full dinner set. Its riddle became the foremost question of 2007 and the reason onlookers spent this whole tournament sort of sifting through the days to get to Federer vs. Nadal.
Friday morning, the sports newspaper L'Equipe used the headline, Les Derniers Ramparts, "The Last Obstacles."
That referred to Davydenko and Djokovic, the last two men with the gall to imagine that somebody other than Federer and Nadal would grace the final.
Davydenko, ranked No. 4, posed resistance. He led 4-2, love-40 in the first set before Federer located his inner Sampras and served an ace plus two service winners. He served for the set at 5-4 in the second set. He led 5-2 and had three set points in the third. He won only eight fewer points than Federer (143-135). He had 17 break points in the match.
He converted three of those, and lost in straight sets.
Federer said, "He certainly deserved to win one set."
Djokovic, the fresh star ranked No. 6, offered resistance but less of it. He ran and slugged with Nadal through a gripping first two sets, then faded, and pronounced Nadal the strongest, fittest player in the world.
Djokovic ran well, but Nadal ran more, and at a little after 7 in the evening Paris time, Nadal whacked one last forehand into a court left open by a wearied foe.
Federer vs. Nadal: Can a 25-year-old icon solve a last, lingering, 21-year-old nemesis?
Federer looked out of sorts in their 2005 semifinal. He committed timidity, some alleged, in their 2006 final. When he finally broke through on the Hamburg clay, he stressed of that match, "I believed in my chance."
He might have edged closer to Nadal on clay &
or he might not have. The impression seems to fluctuate, Nadal noted. At Rome 2006, five sets, the difference seemed minute. At Monte Carlo 2007, Nadal won by 6-4, 6-4, and people asked if it was getting easier. At Hamburg, a shift.
"But the thing is if I'm playing well, if I'm not playing well, if he plays well, not well," Nadal said in English. "That's my opinion. I don't know your opinion."
Then, the language in the media room shifted to Spanish, whereupon Nadal claimed Federer faces more pressure. "And I'm going to fight and struggle like a lion," Nadal said.
Spoken almost like a favorite.
Nadal vs. Federer is set in clay