PARIS, May 20 – Rafael Nadal is poised to become the first man to claim five successive French Open titles and once again crush Roger Federer's fading, lifetime ambition of securing a career Grand Slam.
The 22-year-old world number one may have seen his latest, marathon claycourt winning streak halted at 33 by Federer in Madrid.
But the Swiss star’s hopes of that victory – which came a day after Nadal spent over four hours beating Novak Djokovic in his semi-final – heralding a new dawn seem certain only to usher in another dark chapter at Roland Garros where he has lost the last three finals to his great Spanish rival.
Two years ago, Federer ended Nadal’s 81-match streak on clay at Hamburg to instill fresh confidence of finally cracking the French code, but he was to be denied once they resumed hostilities in Paris.
On the evidence of the 2008 tournament here, where Federer won just four games in a brutally one-sided final, the 13-time Grand Slam title winner looks doomed.
Adding to the odds stacked against him is Nadal’s record of having won all 28 matches he’s played in the French capital. Furthermore, in 2008, the Spaniard swept to the title without dropping a set.
But Federer refuses to concede defeat, believing that his win in Madrid, which was his 58th career title, but first of 2009, could represent another launchpad.
"He has never lost in Paris so obviously his confidence is very high, but I think we have seen that if you play Rafa the right way there are chances," said the 27-year-old world number two.
"I know his game inside out. It’s not like he changes many things, he is just rock solid like when Leyton Hewitt was number one and all those other guys who were dominating from the baseline.
"He is the best mover on this surface. He is just an excellent competitor and that is what makes him so difficult to beat.
"I know what you have to do but it’s not easy to do against him because he is so good."
Sunday’s meeting in Madrid was the pair’s 20th career clash with Nadal holding the upper hand 13-7 overall, and 9-2 on clay.
Their rivalry is one of sports’ most compelling with Nadal having dethroned Federer as Wimbledon champion in an epic final in 2008 before the Spaniard reduced the Swiss to a tearful wreck after victory in Australia this year in another five-set thriller.
Worryingly for Federer, Nadal was in no mood for post-mortems on his Madrid loss, claiming the altitude had given the courts an extra zip with the added speed always likely to favour his opponent.
In Paris, the surfaces are slower, the points longer.
"I’m not a fortune teller," said Nadal when invited to look ahead to the French Open.
"The situation in Madrid…isn’t normal because of the altitude. The ball is going higher and it doesn’t always go as high on other clay courts.
"For me, this tournament has nothing to do with Paris. I think Roger has the potential to win in Paris, he’s one of the favourites. But the tournament hasn’t started and we’re talking about the final."
In the unlikely event of the June 7 final not being a repeat of the last three, Djokovic, who had three match points against Nadal in his Madrid semi-final, would be the most likely beneficiary.
But the big-hearted Serbian, who turns 22 on Friday, has lost all nine claycourt meetings with Nadal, including four in 2009, in Davis Cup, Monte-Carlo, Rome and then in Spain.
Djokovic, who came back from a set down to beat Federer in the semi-finals in Rome this year, has reached the semi-finals in Paris for the last three years, losing to Nadal on every occasion without claiming a set.
Britain’s Andy Murray has lost both his claycourt meetings with Nadal and despite holding a 6-2 advantage over Federer, the two have never met on clay.
In two visits to the French Open, Murray has yet to get beyond the third round.