PARIS — For the fourth straight time in a Grand Slam final, it will be Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal.
That Djokovic made it after running into only a wisp of a challenge from Roger Federer — well, that came as a bigger surprise.
The top two players each won in straight sets Friday — second-seeded Nadal in a 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 whitewashing of sixth-seeded Ferrer and top-seeded Djokovic in a 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 win over No. 3 Federer that didn’t feel that close.
On Sunday, “Rafa” and “Nole” meet and someone will make history: Either Nadal will win his seventh French Open to break the record he now shares with Bjorn Borg or Djokovic will become the first man in 43 years to win four straight Grand Slam tournaments.
And while they’ll have trouble putting on a better show than their last Grand Slam final — the nearly six-hour, five-set drama Djokovic won at the Australian Open — it shouldn’t be hard to stage a more competitive day of tennis than what happened in the semifinals.
“I know I have to be playing consistently well on a very high level to win a best-of-five against Nadal here,” Djokovic said. “It’s the ultimate challenge. But I believe today was my best match of 2012 Roland Garros for me. I raised my game when I needed to. That’s something that gives me confidence before the final.”
The key stat in Djokovic’s win was Federer’s 46 unforced errors to 17 for Djokovic. Federer, a 16-time major championship winner, struggled with the conditions on yet another windy day at Roland Garros, to say nothing of the pressure of having to go for big shots to get anything past his Serbian opponent.
“It was difficult to attack,” Federer said. “And being defensive — I could have waited a little. But if I were to do this, I was playing for him. I was not here to play a good match but to win the match, so I had to hit the balls. It was a bit disappointing today.”
Serving to stay in the first set, Federer missed four forehands over the span of five points en route to the loss.
He came out in the second set and broke after overcoming a 40-0 deficit in the first game, including swatting away a volley winner after Djokovic chased down a lob and hit it between his legs. That came at the close of a 38-shot rally that wound up as the best point of the match.
Federer broke Djokovic again for a 3-0 lead and it appeared a possible repeat of last year’s thrilling U.S. Open semifinal, in which Djokovic saved two match points to win a five-setter, might be in store.
Instead, Djokovic won 13 of the next 18 games to avenge his last defeat in a Grand Slam tournament — a four-set loss to Federer here last year at the same stage of the French Open.
“When you come back from double break down against a player like Federer, it’s a success, a great achievement,” Djokovic said. “But I can’t allow myself to have that many ups and downs, especially in the next match.”
Since his loss to Federer last year, Djokovic has won 27 straight Grand Slam matches, matching Federer for second place on the Open era list. Another win would give Djokovic the non-calendar-year Grand Slam, and if he were to follow that with a win in the first round of Wimbledon, he would share the win-streak record with Rod Laver, the last man to win the four biggest tournaments in a row.
“I think he’s the overwhelming favorite,” Federer said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Nadal’s six French Open titles aren’t the only thing he’s got in common with Borg. Through six matches in this tournament, Rafa has yet to lose a set and has dropped only 35 games. A number that low hasn’t been seen since 1980, when Borg only lost 31. (Borg also holds the record — 27 in 1978).
Ferrer was pretty much helpless to add much to that tally and the story of this match was told early in the second set when Nadal, rushing to retrieve a short ball, lost his balance and fell to the clay. Nadal still managed to get the ball back to Ferrer, who played another short shot, only to see Rafa scramble back to his feet and push back an unreturnable lob.
“We were playing a fantastic point. You fall down. But I saw the ball all the time,” Nadal said. “Even if I lost the balance of my body, I was watching the ball in every moment. Even if I’m on the floor, I had time to hit the ball in a reasonably good position.”
Nadal was in that kind of zone all day, spending most of the match moving Ferrer around the court like a marionette. Ferrer actually had two break points in the first 15 minutes of the match, but couldn’t convert either.
Nadal has now saved 18 of 19 break points against him in this tournament and has won 71 of 72 service games. He has been pushed only one time, and then only briefly — in a 7-6 first-set win against Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals.
Ferrer didn’t manage six games in the entire match.
“He plays better than me all the time,” Ferrer said. “It’s difficult to say something, no? He was better, and he had a very good match.”
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