Move over kids, the big boys are back. It took all of one Grand Slam for normalcy to be restored. Dominic Thiem’s US Open victory – the first by anyone other than Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer after 13 Slams – had just one member of the ‘Big Three’, who too was defaulted in the fourth round. French Open has two of them. Both will play the final.
Defending champion Nadal and world No 1 Djokovic will meet for the 56th time on Sunday, the most clashes between any players in the Open era. The former can match Federer’s all-time men’s singles Slam record of 20 with a jaw-dropping 13th Roland Garros title; the latter can become the first man in half a century to win all the four Majors at least twice.
Nadal – on clay, in a final, at the French Open – is a different beast altogether. Djokovic will be no easy prey though. Here’s why:
After their fourth-round victories, the ATP Media Info put out a stat list that showed Nadal and Djokovic going toe-to-toe in the tournament at that point. Both had the same number of sets won (12) and lost (0), bagel sets (2), games won (72), most games lost in a set (4) and most games lost in a match (10).
In the two matches since they have taken slightly different paths to the final – Nadal had hard-fought yet straight-set wins over Jannik Sinner and Diego Schwartzman in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, respectively. Djokovic, whose only French Open win came in 2016, dropped a set against Pablo Carreno Busta before outlasting Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 in the semis. Still, Djokovic spent only 45 minutes more on court on Friday compared to Nadal’s slugfest that lasted 3:09 for three sets.
More game time
In this pandemic-disrupted season, game time is invaluable. Djokovic has the edge. Not only did the Serb play exhibition games during the hiatus, he’s had a 20-match run since the resumption of the tour coming into this final, including title wins at Cincinnati and Rome Masters.
Nadal skipped the US swing of the return and played all of three matches before the French Open. Other than twice against Schwartzman and once against a tired Carreno Busta in Rome, the Spaniard hasn’t faced a top-20 player since return. Djokovic will thus present a big step up in level for Nadal.
We keep talking about it – the slower and heavier conditions not aiding Nadal’s topspin-heavy game. So far, the clay maestro has adapted but against Djokovic he’ll be asked sterner questions. “I think that could be a better chance for me, obviously the ball not bouncing as high over the shoulder as he likes it usually,” Djokovic said, though he knows it may not count for much. “I mean, look, regardless of the conditions, he’s still there, he’s Rafa, he’s in the finals, we’re playing on clay.”
That, in essence, is the deal. Nadal is undefeated in the French Open final; only two players have ever beaten him in Paris. One is Djokovic, but that came in the 2015 quarters. He has not beaten Nadal in their two previous Roland Garros finals. On the flipside, no one has beaten Djokovic this year in completed matches. One of them will break the duck on Sunday.
Djokovic v Nadal – head to head
Overall: Djokovic leads 29-26
Grand Slams: Nadal leads 9-6
Grand Slam finals: Tied 4-4
Clay: Nadal leads 17-7
Clay finals: Nadal leads 7-4
French Open: Nadal leads 6-1
French Open finals: Nadal leads 2-0
• Last Grand Slam match: Djokovic won 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 (2019 Australian Open)
• Last French Open match: Djokovic won 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 (2015 quarter-finals)
• Last French Open final: Nadal won 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 (2014)