For Nadal, who defeated Diego Schwartzman in a routine 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (7-0) win in Friday’s first semifinal, a 13th French Open trophy would extend his own record in Paris and tie Roger Federer’s mark of 20 Grand Slam men’s singles titles.
For Djokovic, who defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in a sensational 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 second semifinal, a second French Open championship, adding to the Coupe des Mousquetaires he lifted in 2016, would bring him major title No. 18.
Adding a considerable asterisk to the sport's current pecking order, it would also make Djokovic the only member of the so-called Big Three to win each of the four major tournaments twice.
“Finals of Grand Slam is always huge,” Djokovic said. “This is what you work for all year long, every season, hoping that you can put yourself in a position to fight for Grand Slam trophies. … Yeah, I mean, it does have a certain, I would say, significance and difference when I play French Open finals to any other slam final. This is the one that I won the least, so of course I am extremely motivated to try to get my hands on another trophy.”
Hierarchy aside, a French Open title would cap one of the busiest individual tennis years in recent history. Djokovic has been nearly perfect on court in 2020, beginning the year with his eighth Australian Open title and carrying a 37-1 record into Sunday’s final. The only blemish was his default at the U.S. Open last month after he accidentally thwacked a ball into the neck of a lineswoman.
Off court, his summer began with the ill-fated Adria Tour, exhibitions during which at least seven people, including Djokovic, tested positive for the novel coronavirus. On the eve of the U.S. Open, he co-founded a player advocacy group separate from the ATP, a political move that he said was a drain on his focus and energy heading into the major. It caused a flood of questions from players, tour organizers and reporters alike and came under scrutiny for not including women.
It seems fitting that Djokovic’s road to this final included one last hurdle at the end.
The 33-year-old had taken the first two sets in Friday’s semifinal against Tsitsipas and was serving for the match at 5-4 when the 22-year-old Greek pinned him in the corner and Djokovic sent a backhand wide. Tsitsipas, who has defeated Djokovic twice before but never beaten him at a major, went on to even the match at two sets apiece.
Djokovic remained calm and leaned into his defensive, precision tennis in the fifth set and took it in just 31 minutes.
“I did feel that, even though I lost the third and fourth, I still felt like I was the better player on the court. I had more control. I just felt comfortable playing,” Djokovic said. “… In the end I think he ran out of gas.”
Nadal arrives at the final Sunday with fresher legs. He has not dropped a set this fortnight, a physical advantage for the 34-year-old to add to his historical edge in matches against Djokovic, at least at the French Open.
The Serb owns a 29-26 edge in their overall series, but Nadal is 6-1 at Roland Garros. He beat Djokovic in straight sets in finals in both 2012 and 2014.
Still, Djokovic is one of just two men who have beaten Nadal at the French Open, thanks to a three-set drubbing in a quarterfinal in 2015 that knocked the Spaniard out of the top 10 for the first time in a decade. Nadal’s only loss before that was to Robin Soderling in 2009.
The match puts a dent in one of the Nadal’s most impenetrable assets on clay. Few who meet him at Roland Garros believe they can beat him because of how rarely it has been done. Should he win the title Sunday, it will improve his French Open record to 100-2.
Asked if their history holds any relevance to the upcoming match, Nadal conceded that his dominance at the major is an advantage. But he pointed out that a win against Djokovic requires perfection from first ball to last.
“I know that is a court that I have been playing well for such a long time, so that helps,” Nadal said. “But at the same time, he has an amazing record here, too, being in the final rounds almost every single time. [Djokovic] is one of the toughest opponents possible.”
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