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The 2011 French Open was the first Grand Slam in at least four years where the idea of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer playing in the finals wasn't the dominant storyline in the days leading up to play. Novak Djokovic and his six-month winning streak had pushed an aging Federer to the side and a potential matchup between the upstart Serb and Nadal was the highly-anticipated match the tennis world was looked forward to this time around. But like so many of those theoretical Federer-Nadal finals that never materialized, nor did Djokovic-Nadal. No worries. What we have is even better.
On Sunday at the French Open, the two most dominant tennis players of their generation will meet for the eighth time in a Grand Slam final and the 25th time overall. Nadal is playing for his sixth tournament title, which would tie him with Bjorn Borg for the most ever at Roland Garros. Federer takes the court after one of the most satisfying wins of his career in an attempt to cap an unexpected resurgence and to send notice that he's not done winning majors as he approaches his 30th birthday.
Nadal is 5-2 against Federer in finals, with three of those wins coming in the French. The last time they played in the final, 2008, Nadal embarrassed the world No. 1, dominating him 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. Things go so bad for Federer in that match that the normally-adoring French crowd jeered him with boos and whistles as he missed shot after shot.
Don't expect a similar performance on Sunday. Though Nadal is still the heavy favorite to win, Federer is playing at a higher level than he has since winning the Australian Open last year. The clay has given him time to turn around on his backhand and he's been placing his serves perfectly on the lines. He never lacks for confidence, but the win over Djokovic will have him brimming with self-assurance. In 2008, Federer walked onto the court knowing he wasn't going to beat Nadal. This year, he thinks he can.
Things rarely work out the way you expect in tennis. For all those Slams where we thought Federer and Nadal would meet in the final, they rarely did outside of Roland Garros. When, finally, we expected a new finalist, that didn't work out either. Federer dispatched of Djokovic and his 43-match win streak in the semis.
Nadal is better on clay. He's played better than Federer on all surfaces this year. He's never lost while healthy at Roland Garros. All the more reason to expect the unexpected, again.
Prediction: Federer in five