Two forces of nature will collide in the Roland-Garros final on Sunday, and something will have to give way.
It will be Rafael Nadal, the man who barely loses at Roland Garros, against Novak Djokovic, the man who only loses against himself.
And behind it all, there will be the all-around competition to see who can one day claim to be the greatest player of all time. A victory for Nadal puts him at Roger Federer’s level in twenty Grand Slam titles, while a loss would mean Djokovic climb to eighteen.
Novak Djokovic took another step towards his 18th Grand Slam by reaching the Roland-Garros final
He faces a purr from Rafael Nadal, a man who has never lost a final in 12 efforts at Roland Garros
Djokovic only succeeded after being scared off by Stefanos Tsitsipas, who saved a match point in the third set to force the distance before losing 6-3 6-2 5-7 4-6 6-1 in three hours and 54 minutes.
He provided some of the best tennis of the year before running out of legs towards the end against an opponent who remained admirably unfazed in the face of a quality assault, which saw him broken three times in a row in the middle of the match. .
“I looked calm on the outside but I wasn’t inside,” said Djokovic. “Mentally, I stayed there after the third set. Rafa is the favorite for the final, it’s his home.
It remains to be seen how much the Greek took away from him.
Djokovic received the most extensive semi-final workout in a five-set thriller on Friday night
The 34-year-old Spaniard is a master at getting to the boil at the right time in the Majors, and he seemed to have been perfectly successful at mastering Diego Schwartzmann’s challenge, beating him 6-3 6-3 7-6.
Federer’s tie is finally in sight for the two men, and with the 39-year-old Swiss missing the season through injury, Nadal reached the final without losing a set for the sixth time. Federer probably would have felt helpless anyway, as his days of hopeful Paris victory are over.
For Djokovic, the win would represent the second time in his career as he held all four Majors at once, but he denied it would be the greatest game of his life.
“Any Roland-Garros final is the biggest game because it’s the one I won the least,” he said. “Rafa is my biggest rival, we have played so many great matches. I don’t think the past will have much effect. Playing it here is the biggest challenge you can face in this sport. I’ve been there and I know what to do.
Both men are looking to close the gap on Roger Federer, who has 20 Grand Slams to his name
Nadal was reluctant to be drawn to the importance of racing: “I live my reality,” he said. “When we’re done, we talk about it. For me, what matters right now is that I will play the final of the most important tournament of the year for me.
Given his extraordinary track record at the Philippe Chatrier stadium, it takes someone brave to bet against Nadal. But it’s fall rather than late spring, and less buying on his shots in slower conditions means winning a 100th game in Paris won’t be easy.
He started the French Open complaining about the size of the balls used and worrying about the likely weather conditions. They didn’t throw it away.
That’s what Nadal was aiming for, long before that pre-tournament press conference where, not for the first time, he was trying to tone down expectations.
Nadal downplayed expectations ahead of tournament start, but is coming back to his best now
Stopping the Spaniard, and current world number 2, on clay is one of the toughest jobs in sport
Winning Roland Garros for an amazing thirteenth time – he’s never lost in the final – is what he’s been aiming for since announcing the decision to skip the US Open on August 4.
The trip this time was not always smooth, especially when there was an Italian connection.
It was Schwartzmann who beat him in Rome at the Italian Open in preparation for this fortnight. Then it was the Italian teenager Jannik Sinner who caused him discomfort in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.
As he pointed out, it wasn’t the same as when he met the Argentine earlier this month: “I think I’m a little more prepared here, right? Rome was my first event after six months and Diego was the first challenge. It is important to go through the whole process. You must suffer. We cannot claim to be in the Roland Garros final without suffering.
Djokovic will have to do something that no previous Roland Garros finalist did against Nadal