Despite all the unpredictables 2020 has thrown at us, some things remain gloriously the same. A 19-year-old holds the Roland Garros women’s singles crown. An Austrian born in the 1990s, outside of the Big Four, holds the US Open Men’s crown. A killer virus is on the loose. Eddie Van Halen is dead. But Rafael Nadal is in the final of the French Open.
Each time the Spaniard takes to the court in Paris a new record tumbles. He has reached the finals 12 times in his career and has never lost one. If he wins it will be his 100th win on the clay courts of Paris. If, though is a big, deep, dark, word. Mostly because of the man across him later this day.
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Nadal’s greatest rival, history will record, is Roger Federer. The duo are close friends, reshaped modern tennis in their own image and have outlasted their peers in a sort where longevity usually equals economic instability. There is an argument to be made, though, about Djokovic’s rivalry against Nadal outdoing that of the Roger-Rafa bromance.
Djokovic’s temper notwithstanding, he goes into the final the heavy favourite. He is the World No. 1, was booted out of the US Open because of himself (literally), holds a 29-16 edge over Nadal in head-to-heads, and significantly, comes into this final already having won a title on clay this year — something Nadal, surprisingly hasn’t!
Going into the competition, Nadal said “The only thing I know is to play against Novak, I need to play my best.” If history is proof, he may have to do better than his best. He hasn’t beaten Djokovic at a Grand Slam in six years (on clay in the 2014 final). They have met thrice since on three different surfaces and Nadal has managed to take a mere two sets off Djokovic in those encounters — in the 2018 Wimbledon epic.
“Without playing my best tennis, the situation is very difficult. I know that this is a court that I have been playing for such a long time, so that helps,” Nadal acknowledged, “but at the same time he has an amazing record here, too, being in the final rounds almost every single time.”
These details are the finer points. The conditions — wet, cold, heavy — and the introduction of the new balls — heavy, green, round — favour the Serb, if only because cold and heavy combine to neutralise Nadal’s topspin heavy game. Furthermore, if Djokovic wins, it moves him to within two of Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles. If Nadal wins, he equals it.
Given Nadal’s unmatched dominance on the Parisian clay, winning even one French Open to complete a career slam was considered by many a huge achievement for Djokovic. But now, he can comfortably better his rival. Win this and he will become the first man in the history of the sport to win every Grand Slam at least twice. Nadal has come close to doing so on multiple occasions — losing to Federer and Djokovic multiple times at the Australian Open to remain stuck on the one title there — and this may finally be the Serb’s chance to own a record no one else does.
A lot of history beckons. Unpredictable? Maybe not. But it won’t be predictable either.
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