Novak Djokovic is on Sunday at Roland Garros again close to the end of the most difficult individual game: the defeat Rafael Nadalwho has never lost a final in 12 championship games at the French Open.
So that you don’t see this as an exaggeration, listen to Djokovic.
“Well, isn’t it obvious?” he asked about the defeat early Friday evening Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 in the semi-finals. “He [Nadal] won this tournament so many times that I don’t think any player has won a tournament that often. He has lost in this place twice in his entire career. “
Djokovic and Nadal, the two best seeds, will play for all French Open marbles for the third time in their careers in the newly renovated Court Philippe Chatrier. Nadal reserved his own place in the final on Sunday and sent Diego Schwartzman in even sets 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (0), earlier on Friday.
This stadium may not be “the house Nadal built,” but he has rented it almost continuously since 2005, when he made his first road to a championship on Chatrier’s gritty, red soil at the age of 19.
“I know it’s a course I’ve played well on for so long. That helps,” said Nadal after playing through Schwartzman, who stunned Nadal in the Italian Open final just over three weeks ago. Nadal added: “At the same time, he [Djokovic] has an amazing record here too, being in the finals almost every time. “
Final laps, yes. Championships, no.
Had it not been for Nadal, Djokovic might have put up to four or five French Open trophies in his house instead of just the ones he earned to finish his Grand Slam career in 2016 – a year Nadal was during the first week because of a wrist injury. Nadal molested Djokovic six times in seven meetings in Paris this spring (this year’s event was postponed by four months due to the coronavirus pandemic), including twice in the final.
What does Nadal have to worry about with 12 titles and a Twilight Zone record of 98-2 at Roland Garros?
More than you think.
“Different circumstances, different types of tournaments and different situations,” said the 34-year-old from Mallorca, referring to both the pandemic, which has restricted his usual clay court preparations, as well as the conditions in this cool, damp October special edition of the French Open .
“The conditions are different from what we are used to in May and June,” said Djokovic. “I think this could be a better chance for me, obviously the ball doesn’t bounce as high over the shoulder as it normally likes. [But] Look, regardless of the conditions, he’s still there. He’s Rafa, he’s in the final and we’re playing on clay. “
Nadal’s superiority at Roland Garros belies the dazzling arc of Djokovic’s career. The 33-year-old Serbian is by mutual agreement the best tennis player since 2011. He has won 16 of his 17 main titles during this time – Nadal has 10, Roger Federer, four – while reversing his fortune in head-to-head games with Nadal and Federer.
Rafael Nadal survived a 23-shot rally against Diego Schwartzman in the first set and then reached his 13th French Open final.
In the first five years of their rivalry, which ended in 2010, Nadal prevailed against Djokovic in 16 of 23 games, including all nine encounters on clay. From 2011, however, Djokovic turned the tide dramatically. He is 22-10 against Nadal which has given him an overall lead of 29-26 in the series.
Most important for Sunday is that Nadal has only been 8: 7 against Djokovic on clay since the beginning of 2011 – the start of the Serbian star’s glory days. With the exception of three French Open meetings, these were the best three games.
The dynamic of the rivalry clearly belongs to Djokovic, but the “King of Clay” was so overwhelming in Paris that he only had to play five sets four times in over 100 games. He has won them all, including a memorable 2013 semi-final against Djokovic.
That win stands out on Nadal’s career highlight role because it came at a time when Djokovic, the youngest of the game’s Big Three, was quickly closing the gap to his two legendary rivals. Nadal held on to win that 4 1/2 hour barn burner, 9-7 in the fifth.
That was a bitter pill for Djokovic. His main stated goal for the year was to win the tournament in order to complete his career as a Grand Slam. Jelena Gencic, Djokovic’s childhood trainer, also died on the middle weekend of the tournament. He really wanted to dedicate a victory in Paris to her memory.
“It was an incredible game to be a part of it, but now I can only feel disappointment. That’s it,” said Djokovic after losing the excruciatingly close game.
The moment was just as sweet for Nadal as it was sour for Djokovic. It was the first great Nadal to be played for knee tendinitis in seven months.
Nadal was able to finish Djokovic’s drive to finish a career grand slam at Roland Garros in a ragged four-set final in 2014.
In contrast to the conditions forecast for Sunday (a maximum of 58 degrees Fahrenheit in the rain), this match was played in suffocating heat and humidity. Djokovic looked worn out in the late stages of this one, his eyes sunk deep into her eye sockets. He seemed to be throwing up during a change at the beginning of the fourth movement.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult to stay at Rafa’s top level throughout the game,” Djokovic said afterwards.
But the ground beneath Nadal’s feet was soon moving as unpredictably as if it were made of loose clay. After this last win at Roland Garros, he experienced the first real slump in his career. He stalled on grass and a wrist injury and appendicitis resulted in Nadal missing the US Open. After that last French Open title, he hasn’t even reached a semifinals all year long.
Nadal continued to fight in 2015. He didn’t earn a single title on the Euroclay tour that he usually dominated. He recorded five losses on clay – more than in an entire five years prior to his career. Nadal’s rank had fallen to seventh as he prepared to defend his French Open title.
In the meantime, Djokovic raged 36-2 before Roland Garros started. With Nadal, he had a winning streak of 27 games in his quarter-finals. Djokovic, No. 1, showed no mercy and drove Nadal 7: 5, 6: 3, 6: 1.
“I’ve lost most of the games we’ve played against him on this court, but I also won a game in 2015 in straight sets in quarters,” said Djokovic on Friday. “This is the match that I’ll look back on and obviously try to get some positive things out of it and use it tactically against him.”
The two men have met eleven times since Djokovic’s breakthrough win, but never at Roland Garros. Djokovic won eight of those battles, but Nadal won three out of four on clay. With both men pursuing Federer’s record for Grand Slam singles (the Swiss star has 20, Nadal 19 and Djokovic 17), this match swells with more significance than any other they have previously contested at the French Open.
Djokovic may gain some confidence and inspiration the last time he beat Nadal in Chatrier’s throne room, but five years is a long time to keep a flame burning. And as Djokovic said of Nadal: “He’s still there, he’s Rafa, he’s in the final and it’s on clay.”