Tennis fans and commentators will debate the significance of Sunday’s Rome final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the days preceding the French Open, and in the days during the French Open until the two men either meet in the Roland Garros final (the likely scenario) or fail to create a Roland Garros final (the unlikely scenario).
When Nole and Rafa meet one week before the French Open, how can anyone NOT wonder what it will mean for Paris?
With this reality serving as the backdrop for the Rome final, let’s put our cards on the table and speak plainly: Djokovic — as has happened multiple times before — will be at a noticeable rest-based disadvantage on Sunday afternoon. He will have played roughly 5.5 hours of tennis over the past two days, and will have ended his last two matches at (roughly) 1 a.m. and 11 p.m. in Rome. Nadal played mid-afternoon matches and was done before a normal dinner hour, winning his matches in routine straight sets.
One is immediately brought back to a recollection of the 2016 Rome final in particular, when Djokovic played a long and taxing semifinal against Kei Nishikori, surviving a third-set tiebreaker deep into the night, only to come out pancake-flat in the final against a very rested Andy Murray.
Yes, Murray is not Rafa. That’s not the point. The point is that Djokovic was spent.
Maybe Djokovic will overcome the short turnaround in 2019. Maybe Nadal won’t play his best. Maybe Rafa will lose in spite of his advantage.
So much speculation will flow in and through the tennis world as a result of this latest Rafole reunion. Plenty of people will look at Sunday’s final and think that the winner will be the favorite for Roland Garros, and that the loser will be the underdog. No, not everyone will, but some people will.
No one is more correct — or errant — than anyone else in terms of this debate. You can make the argument that winning breeds confidence, and that as a result, the outcome of the Rome final matters for Paris. You can also argue that Djokovic and Nadal have lost in Rome and regrouped in France. Djokovic’s Roland Garros championship came precisely in that same year — 2016 — when he was exhausted and unable to win in the Rome final.
Yes, Murray is not Rafa… but I am more focused on Djokovic once again coming into a Rome final without comparable rest when measured against his opponent. Djokovic has engineered a French Open turnaround before. That is the salient point.
The uncertainty attached to the 2019 Rome final is that while Nadal might be in position to beat Djokovic, just how much will it mean to Rafa if he beats an overcooked version of Nole? How would that adequately prepare him for Paris?
Yes, maybe the simple reality of beating Djokovic — even a very tired version of Nole — will boost Nadal. That could definitely be the case. Yet, as a measurement of pure quality, and as a likely indicator of what a Roland Garros final would look like, it is hard to see how playing Djokovic in these circumstances in Rome would mirror — in any meaningful way — a possible French Open final.
All I would say to you, as the tidal wave of speculation next week begins to roar through #TennisTwitter, is simply this: Djokovic, who played magnificently under pressure and under fatigue these past 48 hours against Juan Martin del Potro (quarterfinals) and Diego Schwartzman (semifinals), absorbing two first-rate challenges from inspired opponents, is very much ready for Roland Garros.
Nothing which happens on Sunday (other than an injury, of course) will undo that statement.
You may now resume your conversations about how much the Rome final will influence your views on the French Open.