This can't live up to the run-up, can it? Surely Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal in the matchup of the year will pale a tad next to the mind's visions for it, right?

Picture it now, and this doozy just blares around the brain. You have the polite, respectful sea monster of Roland Garros, Nadal, audaciously trying to show that somebody can win something just about in perpetuity. You have the audacious No. 1 player in the world, Djokovic, lifting his foot toward his last astral ladder rung.

Sometime Friday late afternoon in Paris and midday in New York, they'll start play in the towering French Open semifinal, and the imagination will give way to the materialization. The run-up will close up. Something marvelous will happen -- or, not.

So in the name of hype and anticipation everywhere, let's savor these last hours in which everything remains possible. Let's get in our last mental pictures of the two big personas, two big presences, two big near-cartoon characters, in clash. Let's remember that so much of the exhilaration of sports comes in the buildup.

The outcome might be something approaching their five-hour, 53-minute wonder at the 2012 Australian Open, and it might be something exceeding Djokovic's brisk 6-2, 7-6 (1) win this year at Monte Carlo, but right now, it can be anything, and that's the boon. Djokovic lurches for his last frontier, and he does so against merely the most impenetrable force in just about any sport in this young century: Nadal, in Paris.


Look on past their 34 previous meetings (19-15, Nadal), their nine previous Grand Slam meetings (6-3, Nadal), their four previous French Open meetings (4-0, Nadal), their last four Grand Slam finals (3-1, Djokovic), through Nadal's record in Paris (57-1) and his number of French titles already (seven). Look on back to the winter of 2010-11, and to No. 3-ranked Novak Djokovic from Serbia.

He had a glamorous life. He had a home in Monaco. He had a compelling splash of a success story, emerging from a country just lifting its head from war. He had the No. 3 ranking, and in his previous 16 Grand Slam tournaments, he had one win, two finalist showings, six semifinals, four quarterfinals. He had all this even against the year-of-birth misfortune of turning up in one of the ultimate eras of his sport, head-banging against the two-man great wall of Roger Federer and Nadal, grabbing his occasional breakthroughs such as the rally past Federer in a five-set 2010 U.S. Open semifinal.

Nobody with two brain cells to rub together could have called Djokovic a failure right then.

Everybody with two brain cells to rub together could understand that, even given his mighty efforts to that stage, what he had done could qualify, reasonably, as enough.

Yet he had in him that whatever-it-is, that force that governs the utmost athletes, so, as he put it in early 2012, "Even when I reached the number three of the world and won a Grand Slam, and that still was a lot of good success that I had until the end of 2010, I was not satisfied enough. You know, I needed to make that extra step. I wanted to achieve my life goal and win Wimbledon and more Grand Slams to really prove to myself in the first place, and to everybody else, that I have the qualities to be the best. I guess that will to win, you know, decided."

He ate better, tried harder, returned leaner. He has won five of the nine Slams since. He has won that Wimbledon he craved (2011). He got a set off Nadal in the 2012 French final before rain pushed the rest of the thing to Monday, and he prevented Nadal from a ninth straight title in Monte Carlo in May. To Friday he arrives, two wins from his last coveted prize, two wins from becoming only the fourth man of the Open Era (after Andre Agassi, Federer and Nadal) with the full dining-room set of the four Grand Slams.

So in this rich, rousing run-up, let's think about that whatever-it-is in Djokovic, and let's mix it in with his backhand and his serve (dominant in the quarterfinals), his futuristic court coverage, his mastery of Nadal still in his memory bank from March 2011-January 2012.

Then let's take all of that, accumulate it and hurl it up against 57-1. Let's remember that while other springtime clay tournaments have had their little vagaries here and there Nadal-wise, Nadal in Paris has been a self-contained ferocity. Let's think that if Nadal wins this titles, he will have won four French Open titles in a row -- twice.

Let's listen to this: "Was my best match of the tournament, without any doubt," Nadal said of his quarterfinal throttling of Stanislas Wawrinka. Let's keep in mind Nadal building from match to match this tournament.

Bang those two together, and the mind has such a time imagining, you almost don't want them to begin play.