PARIS, France, June 4- Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, with a staggering 25 Grand Slam titles between them, meet in their fourth French Open final in six years on Sunday with both men anticipating another epic Roland Garros clash.
Five-time champion Nadal needs one more title to equal the Paris record set by Bjorn Borg.
It would also allow him to hang on to his world number one ranking which had been threatened by Novak Djokovic until Federer ended the Serb’s 43-match winning run in their breathtaking semi-final.
Victory for Federer would take his personal Grand Slam collection to 17 and deliver a perfectly-timed response to those who had written him off as a major contender.
The great Swiss rammed his critics’ words firmly down their throats with his 7-6 (7/5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7/5) defeat of Djokovic in a semi-final already being talked about as one of the great Grand Slam clashes.
Federer, however, knows that the hard work is still to come, trying to halt top seed Nadal whose 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 semi-final win over Andy Murray took his record in Paris to 44 victories against one defeat since his 2005 debut.
The Spaniard won their three previous Paris final meetings in 2006, 2007 and 2008 with the last encounter proving a bruising experience for Federer who claimed just four games.
"We played a great match in Madrid this year (where Federer won the first set of their semi-final before losing in three sets), so obviously I’ve got my hands full with him now," said Federer ahead of the pair’s 25th career meeting.
"Whoever thinks it’s going to be a walk in the park is wrong. Everybody knows how many times he’s gotten me here in Paris. But I have another opportunity to beat Rafa and get the French Open title.
"I’ve got to play some extraordinarily special tennis. I’m aware of that."
Federer, who won his only French Open in 2009 to complete the career Grand Slam, has played without pressure or expectation over the last two weeks, freed from the spotlight trained firmly on Nadal and Djokovic.
His failure to reach a Grand Slam final since his 2010 Australian Open victory had also lowered people’s expectations if not his own.
"I haven’t disappeared since," said Federer. "I think I’ve played some great matches since and I made some sacrifices. I wasn’t lying on the beach.
"So I’m pretty happy that I made that effort over the years, and that when it really counts I’m at the big occasion.
"It always seems to me that Rafa needs to be in a French Open final to make it special, and I got the match I guess I was hoping for. After beating Novak, it’s in a way a gift that I get the chance, and I’m looking forward to it."
Nadal too had come into the French Open under a cloud.
He lost his Madrid and Rome claycourt titles to Djokovic and his first round struggles, where he needed five sets to defeat America’s John Isner, suggested that the relentless squeeze being applied by the Serb was taking its toll.
When Nadal, who only turned 25 on Friday, complained that he felt he had been playing for 100 years, many took that as a sign that the top seed had virtually ceded his position to Djokovic.
"This is something that people dream of, reaching the final. I’m really happy to be playing the final for one of the most important tournaments in the world on clay, so I have all the reasons to be satisfied," said Nadal.
"I’ve had to overcome very difficult situations in the past one and a half weeks. But I had to forget the fears I had and now I have gained more confidence."
Nadal insists that he is not concerned about equalling Borg’s record of six Roland Garros titles.
"Seriously, I don’t think about that. I have a lot of respect for the great Bjorn, but I am focussing on trying to play well. For me, it’s much more important to win Roland Garros than equal Bjorn."