French Open: Novak Djokovic to face Rafael Nadal in final

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Novak Djokovic will face Rafa Nadal in Sunday's French Open final

Djokovic beat Ernests Gulbis while Nadal overcame Andy Murray

Djokovic seeking to become eighth man to complete a career grand slam

Nadal looking for ninth championship win at Roland Garros

Paris, France CNN  — 

The top ranking is at stake in the men’s game when Rafael Nadal meets Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s French Open final. But don’t let that fool you – both tennis titans, having held down the No. 1 spot previously, are more concerned about piling up grand slam titles.

For current holder Nadal, he’s seeking a record-extending ninth success at Roland Garros, an accomplishment that would also see him tie Pete Sampras for second on the men’s list with 14 majors.

A bad back and Stanislas Wawrinka, likely in that order of significance, stalled Nadal in January’s Australian Open final.

Djokovic, meanwhile, is attempting to become the eighth man to complete a career grand slam and inflict only a second defeat on Nadal at Roland Garros.

Their historic 41-match rivalry has seen streaks of the roller-coaster variety, and second-ranked Djokovic is the man in the ascendancy at the moment, capturing four straight tussles including the final of the Rome Masters last month.

Djokovic stretched Nadal to five sets last year in the last four, undone by a freak occurrence when he touched the net deep in the fifth.

“He’s an unbelievable opponent,” Nadal told the crowd after his semifinal Friday. “It’s always a big, big challenge.”

It’s a finale too close to call but based on the semis, Nadal might just have the upper hand.

As temperatures soared in Paris to about 30 degrees, helping to banish memories of a cold, rainy first week, Djokovic toiled in the heat – not something new – before ousting Roger Federer’s conqueror Ernests Gulbis 6-3 6-3 3-6 6-3. He subsequently told French television he indeed dipped physically in the third.

Nadal then had an easier time against Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, prevailing 6-3 6-2 6-1 in a quick-fire 100 minutes.

Murray always had an uphill task, never overcoming Nadal in five tries on clay, spending four-and-a-half more hours on court this fortnight – maybe the equivalent of two matches – and having to contend with a Spaniard whose heavily spun balls shoot off the clay and spin in the air even more in steamy conditions.

“Today I played my best tennis of the tournament,” Nadal said.

Nadal, probably unlike Djokovic, will be glad to know the mini-heat wave is expected to continue through Sunday.

“For me it’s much better when the weather is like today,” Nadal later told reporters. “It’s obvious that with days like today, it helps my game.

“I need to play aggressive. I need to find my best level, and I’m gonna try.”

Djokovic took his time attending the post-match press conference, heightening suspicions something was amiss.

“There is nothing bothering me,” he said. “Just the general fatigue that, you know, probably was influenced by conditions or other things that I felt today. But I’m not going to talk about. That’s it.

“I’m glad I won in four sets, because if it went to a fifth, God knows in which direction the match could go.”

Gulbis’ coach, Gunther Bresnik, said before the semifinals his man had “no chance” against Djokovic, trying to ease the pressure on the reformed Latvian.

But unlike Chelsea football manager Jose Mourinho, who often resorts to mind games, Bresnik admitted to uttering the words to relax Gulbis. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

Ultimately, Bresnik was right.

Djokovic breezed through the first two sets before a blip in the third – the third time that transpired this tournament. Hunched over and hitting with less pace, his malaise allowed Gulbis to force a fourth.

The problem for Gulbis was that he, too, seemed to be in distress, often clutching his lower back. He said afterwards, however, that he wasn’t hurt. It was simply tension.

Djokovic broke near the end of the fourth set and to his relief served out the match comfortably to achieve a second French Open final.

“I’m just going to rest today and tomorrow, try to not spend too much energy on the courts and get ready for finals,” said Djokovic.

Nadal seized the initiative with an early break against Murray and never let his grip go. His feared forehand was in devastating mode, giving what must have been a jaded Murray little opportunity.

Nadal never faced a break point and was taken to deuce only once, in his last service game. The result countered their tight three-setter in Rome.

“You can go out there with all the tactics in the world, but when he’s hitting the ball like that, it’s very difficult to hit the ball where you want to,” Murray told reporters.

Djokovic has the ability to handle Nadal’s cross-court forehand like no other, perhaps a reason Bresnik picked the Serb to win the title.

Sunday will tell us if he is right again.

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