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There will be no 14th title for Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros this weekend after he was beaten 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 by Novak Djokovic in Friday’s incredible semi-finals.
It was widely viewed as a significant upset but Djokovic was always going to be a challenge for the 35-year-old Spaniard. Or might it be that Nadal was jinxed pre-tournament when a statue of himself was unveiled on the grounds at Roland Garros. Usually, statues go up after the legend has retired.
Over the years, Djokovic has had reason to believe there was a hex on him in Paris. In 2012, rain postponed his final against Nadal in the fourth set when he was trailing but had won eight of the nine previous games. In the 2013 semi-finals, he lost a key point late in the fifth set against Nadal when he accidentally touched the net on a put-away shot. In 2015, bad weather forced him to complete 90 minutes of his semi-final with Andy Murray on Saturday before playing and losing in the final to Stan Wawrinka, who had had a day off. In 2019, inclement weather delayed the conclusion of his semi-final until Saturday in fiercely windy conditions, a match he lost to Dominic Thiem with a rested Nadal awaiting the winner in the final.
This year there was another glitch on Wednesday night when Djokovic had to play until almost midnight to beat Matteo Berrettini in the quarter-finals after Nadal was long finished for the day. But good fortune turned Djokovic’s way on Friday when the five-set Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Alexander Zverev semi-final lasted three hours and 17 minutes, pushing the start of Djokovic vs. Nadal until about 7 p.m. By then the sun was off Court Philippe Chatrier and the temperature had dropped, taking some of the bite out of Nadal’s high-bouncing, muscled topspin shots.
“We had been playing with very warm and high bounces; during the night the situation goes a little bit the other way,” Nadal said. “So (balls) bounce a little bit less. The ball gets less topspin. That's more favorable for him, the conditions. By the way, doesn't matter. That's tennis. The player who gets used to the conditions better is the player who deserves to win.”
Even if the fates were kind to Djokovic against Nadal, he faces one more hurdle with a lot at stake in Sunday’s final against Tsitsipas. With a victory, Djokovic can become the first player in the Open era to win all four Grand Slam titles twice, extend his Grand Slam total to 19, and put him halfway to completing the first calendar Grand Slam since Aussie great Rod Laver accomplished the feat in 1969.
- INSIGHTS is giving Djokovic a 54% chance of winning Roland Garros for the second time, while Tsitsipas’ odds are 46%.
Here’s a closer look at Sunday’s final:
No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas
Statistics get batted back and forth these days like tennis balls crisscrossing the net. And so here’s another one with Djokovic attempting to establish several historic marks in Sunday’s final. The 34-year-old Serbian has played 64 Grand Slam events and has a remarkably similar number of wins at each: 82 at the Australian Open, 81 at Roland Garros, 72 at Wimbledon and 75 at the US Open. By contrast, Nadal has played 61 Grand Slams and his victories range from a high of 105 at Roland Garros to a low of 53 at Wimbledon. Federer has competed in 70 Grand Slams with his most wins being 102 at the Australian Open and his fewest 73 at Roland Garros.
A lot of that is ancient history and won’t mean much for 22-year-old Tsitsipas, 22, who is making his Grand Slam final debut. This year, the Greek leads the tour in wins with a 39-8 record, and his record on clay has been an impressive 22-3. The World No. 5 was so emotionally wrought after his hard-fought 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Zverev in the semi-finals that his eyes watered and he could barely speak on-court.
“All I can think of is my roots. I came from a really small place outside Athens,” he said. “My dream was to play here. My dream was to play on a big stage at the French Open one day. I would never have thought that I could.”
Tsitsipas looked tense and tired as the fifth set began against Zverev on Friday, but once he rallied from a love-40 deficit in his opening service game, he was reinvigorated and played the assertive, clay-court tennis that has given him such success in 2021.
Djokovic, though appearing a lot fresher than Nadal through most of their four-hour and 11-minute thriller, still has work to do to be ready for the final on Sunday at 3 p.m. (9 a.m. ET).
“It’s not the first time that I play an epic semi-final in a Grand Slam and then I have to come back in less than 48 hours and plays finals,” he said. “My recovery abilities are pretty good, I must say, throughout my career. Obviously, my physiotherapist will try to do everything possible so I can be fresh.”
Djokovic has a 5-2 head-to-head lead against Tsitsipas, and that’s been four in a row for Djokovic and 5-1 in the last three years after the Greek won their first encounter in 2018 in Toronto. Djokovic has won all three of their meetings on clay, including in five sets in last year’s Roland Garros semi-final and in the Rome quarter-finals 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 last month.
“He’s in great form,” Djokovic said about Tsitsipas. “He’s had his best results overall. I think he matured as a player a lot. Clay (is) arguably his best surface. We played an epic five-setter last year in the semis here. I know it’s going to be another tough one. I’m hoping I can recharge my batteries as much as I can because I’m going to need some power and energy for that one.”
Djokovic is playing in his 29th Grand Slam final, two fewer than Federer’s record of 31. It’s the first final for Tsitsipas, who has moved to the head of the class of the best emerging players along with Daniil Medvedev and Zverev.
In the final, it will be Tsitsipas and his one-handed backhand, all-court style and flair contrasted with Djokovic, the relentless executioner.
Tsitsipas has had his game face on the entire fortnight, showing little of the quirky charm and humor that has earned him so many admirers. He has done absolutely everything he can to prepare for the biggest moment of his career. At 22 years and 305 days, he’s hoping to become the youngest Grand Slam champion since Juan Martin del Potro won the 2009 US Open at 20 years and 355 days. He’s aiming to become the first-ever Grand Slam champion from Greece.
If money talks, Djokovic speaks the loudest of the finalists. He has earned $148,092,073 in official career prize money, almost exactly 10 times Tsitsipas’ $14,136,302. With the abundance of financial rewards at the elite level of tennis, money will be the last thing on the players’ minds on Sunday. When the two men enter Court Philippe Chatrier, their only thought will be about writing a new chapter in the history books.
- Per INSIGHTS, Djokovic has the edge over Tsitsipas in almost every category including overall UTR (15.99 vs. 15.92), Clay UTR (15.98 vs 15.93) and Three-Month UTR (15.99 vs. 15.97), but the margin is tiny.