Nole v. Rafa: Best. Tennis. Ever.

I’ve been a tennis fan and player long enough to have watched the 43-year-old Pancho Gonzales defeat the 19-year-old Jimmy Connors in the Pacific Southwest tennis tournament held at the Los Angeles Tennis Club — the club where I now do fitful battle on weekends — back in 1971.

Okay, I admit it. I was already older than Connors then and had already seen a whole galaxy of great tennis players: Lew Hoad, Frank Sedgeman, Jack Kramer, Ken Rosewall, Tony Trabert, etc., etc.

But here’s the thing. Unlike a lot of fields of endeavor (movies, theatre, art, music, etc.), tennis is better now than ever. Two men, both with an argument to be the greatest of all time, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, are going to be battling it out for the French Open title at Roland Garros on Sunday. Don’t miss it.

These guys play a brand of tennis no one would have believed twenty years ago, with a fitness the best of the NBA can only dream of. The last time they met in the finals of a Grand Slam (Australia), it went on for over six hours, non-stop, no substitutions, no real breaks. Who knows what will happen Sunday — and there is so much on the line.

Djoker is out to win his fourth Grand Slam in a row, the first one to pull that off since Rod Laver in 1969; Rafa is out for a record-breaking 7th French Open victory.

Along the way Nole (as Djokovic is called) dispensed with Roger Federer — the man Tiger Woods called the best athlete in the world — in three quick sets, while Nadal blew away everyone, barely facing a break point and losing a scant 35 games in the whole tournament. Only Bjorn Borg had done better, but that was in the days of wood rackets.

And, yes, fans are watching this, even though the stars are no longer Americans, the great Sampras having repaired to his new digs on Lake Sherwood. But even though American tennis is in eclipse for now, the Tennis Channel has been breaking records with its coverage of the French Open. (BTW, Tennis Channel commentary is great, very informative, especially Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe.)

Singles tennis isn’t for sissies anymore — or country club snobs. It’s a killer sport, more mano-a-mano than anything outside the boxing ring. One man across from the other with a net between them. No teammates and little help from the coaches while the game is on. You’ve got to be able to hit 130MPH serves and run like a sprinter until you’re dead. You think you’re tough? Try doing six hours on center court with Rafael Nadal?

Do even one hour and you can drink all the 16 ounce sodas you want. You’re gonna need them. Not to mention a ton of Gatorade. Wimbledon’s next. (But stay away from the bread. Djokovic went on a gluten-free diet last year and went on a rampage of 43 straight wins. And he wasn’t playing against your Uncle Sid.)