Nadal v Djokovic in the French Open final means something has to give

MIKE DICKSON: Rafael Nadal has never lost a French Open final while no player has got the better of Novak Djokovic in 2020… Sunday’s finale at Roland Garros has the hallmarks of a classic, but something has to give

  • Novak Djokovic left it late to secure the second spot in the French Open final
  • Earlier on Friday Rafael Nadal breezed into the final with a straight sets victory
  • Nadal has won all 12 of his previous finals at Roland Garros and looks in form
  • Novak Djokovic’s only blemish in 2020 was his default at last month’s US Open 
  • Something will have to give as two greats of the sport prepare to slug it out 

Two forces of nature will collide on Sunday in the French Open final, and something will have to give.

It will be Rafael Nadal, the man who barely ever loses at Roland Garros, against Novak Djokovic, the man who only ever loses against himself.

And behind it all will be the over-arching contest to see who can one day claim to be the greatest player of all time. A win for Nadal puts him level with Roger Federer on 20 Grand Slam titles, while defeat would mean Djokovic climbing up to 18.

Novak Djokovic took a step closer to his 18th Grand Slam as he reached the French Open final

He faces a purring Rafael Nadal, a man who has never lost a final in 12 efforts at Roland Garros

Djokovic only made it after being given an almighty fright by Stefanos Tsitsipas, who saved a match point in the third set to force it the distance before losing 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 in three hours and 54 minutes.

It provided some of the best tennis seen all year before he ran out of legs towards the end against an opponent who stayed admirably unflustered in the face of a quality assault, which saw him broken three straight times in the middle of the match.

How much it has taken out of him remains to be seen.

The 34-year-old Nadal is a master of bringing himself to the boil at just the right time in the Majors, and on Friday he looked like he was peaking at just the right time in subduing the challenge of Diego Schwartzman, beating him 6-3, 6-3, 7-6.

Djokovic was given the more extensive semi-final workout in a five-set thriller on Friday night

Both men are looking to close the gap on Roger Federer, who has 20 Grand Slams to his name

Equalling Federer is finally within sight for both men, and with the 39-year-old Swiss sitting out the season with injury Nadal has reached the final without having lost a set for the sixth time. Federer probably would have felt helpless anyway, as his days of hoping to win Paris are gone.

Nadal was reluctant to be drawn on the significance of the race: ‘I live my reality,’ he said. ‘When we finish we talk about that. For me what matters at the moment is that I will play the final of the most important tournament of the year for me.’

He began the French Open by complaining the about the size of the balls being used and fretting over the likely weather conditions. They have not thrown him off.

This is what Nadal has been aiming for, long before that pre-tournament press conference when, not for the first time, he tried to dampen down expectation about what would come in the next fortnight.

Winning Roland Garros for an astonishing 13th time – he has never lost in the final – is what he has been shooting towards ever since he announced the decision to skip the US Open on August 4.

Nadal played down expectations before the tournament began but looks back to his best now

Stopping the Spaniard, and current world No 2, on clay is one of sport’s toughest assignments

All roads have always led to Paris for Nadal, and he knew the surest way of adding to his 19 Major titles would be to focus on the place that has always been his banker.

The journey this time was not always smooth, especially when there has been an Italian connection.

It was Schwartzman who beat him in Rome at the Italian Open in the build-up to this fortnight. Then it was Italian teenager Jannik Sinner who caused him some serious discomfort late on Tuesday evening, threatening to win both the first and second sets.

As he pointed out, this was not the same as when he met the Argentinian earlier in the month: ‘I think different scenario, first of all. Second thing, I think I am little bit more prepared here, no? 

‘Rome was my first event after six months, and Diego was the first challenge. The conditions out there today have been one of the best of the tournament, it was 16 degrees, not much wind. I think the feeling is better.

Djokovic will need to do something no previous Roland Garros finalist has managed vs Nadal

‘It’s important to go through all the process. You have to suffer. You can’t pretend to be in a final of Roland Garros without suffering.’

He had learned from his previous defeat to Schwartzman, the diminutive Argentinian who earlier in the week had taken out the player who looked to be the greatest threat, Dominic Thiem.

Given his extraordinary record on the Philippe Chatrier Stadium it takes someone brave to wager against Nadal. But this is autumn rather than late Spring, and less purchase on his shots in the slower conditions means gaining a 100th match win in Paris will not be straightforward. 

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