Updated: June 11, 2021 7:15:37 pm
On Friday, at the Philippe Chatrier Court, third seed Rafael Nadal will face World No.1 Novak Djokovic in another match up of the most played tie in the history of the sport. For sheer quality of the players, this could be the ‘final’ of the French Open.
This will be the 58th time the pair faces each other, Djokovic leading 29-28. In terms of the Grand Slam head-to-head records though, 35-year-old Nadal has a clear lead over his 34-year-old rival. In the 16 Grand Slam meetings, Nadal has won 10 to Djokovic’s six, and in the eight times they’ve played at the French Open, Nadal has lost just once.
Crucially, that solitary win over the Spaniard in Paris (2015) made Djokovic the second (after Sweden’s Robin Soderling in 2009) and last person to beat Nadal at the clay Slam.
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The G.O.A.T race
In this greatest generation of all time, the race is still on to see who will be king. So far, Nadal and Roger Federer are tied on 20 and Djokovic, the youngest in the pack, is chasing them on 18 Majors. And every meeting at a Grand Slam adds heft to which way the ‘Greatest of All Time (GOAT)’ debate will end.
A title for Djokovic will make him the only player to breach the domain of both his rivals. He’s beaten Federer three times at the Wimbledon final. However, when Djokovic won his only French Open title in 2016, Nadal had pulled out after the second round because of a wrist injury. Beating Nadal en route to the final and winning it will be special. If Djokovic win the 2021 title, it will make him the only player to have won each of the four Grand Slams at least twice.
If Nadal gets past Djokovic and wins the title eventually, it will help him overtake Federer’s tally (both are tied at 20 each) of most Grand Slam titles for the first time in his career. It’ll be his 14th title in Paris too.
Rafa’s tactical change
Ahead of the 2021 edition, organisers unveiled a metal statue on the Roland Garros grounds. It resembled the follow-through of a typical powerful Nadal forehand topspin stroke.
The hitting style has not changed over the years. Nor has the pattern of his grunt. And he still has the various tics before each point like tucking the hair behind the ears, tapping his shoulders, the famous yank of the shorts, and ensuring the water bottles are facing the right way.
This has remained constant ever since he won his first Coupe des Mousquetaires in 2005. What has changed though – particularly since he turned 30 – is the increase in his attacking intent after his serve.
Nadal had broken onto the big stage as a defensive baseliner ready to chase down everything that came his way. The slugfests were his specialty. Yet that has changed over the years as he’s looked to finish points early.
The New York Times accessed Hawkeye data that determined Nadal played 30 per cent of his first shot after his serve from inside the baseline between 2012 and 2016. Thereon, it’s increased steadily to the 42 per cent recorded last year. This becomes important when you consider that Nadal wins 74 per cent of points when he hits his first shot after his serve from inside the baseline, and only 59 per cent when he’s behind the baseline. That’s how he dismantled Djokovic at last year’s French Open final – Nadal had won 53 points that lasted four shots or less compared to Djokovic’s 25.
Conditions in Paris this term may also favour Nadal. The warmer weather will help the ball fly more and bounce higher with the topspin he generates, making it difficult for opponents.
The Serbian has not shied away from claiming that pursuits of records keep him driven. He’s broken Federer’s record for being ranked World No.1 for more weeks than any other men’s singles player.
He’s currently tied with Nadal for most number of ATP 1000 Masters titles. But the one he’s eyeing now is the Grand Slam tally. In all likelihood, when the Big 3 retire, Djokovic is expected to be the one holding that record. Federer, 40 in August, may have fondness for Wimbledon, and Nadal may be unstoppable on clay, the younger Djokovic is an all-court player.
He too has become much more attacking in his approach over the years, compared to when he started as a defensive baseliner. He has the ability of finding a winner despite being on the back-foot in a rally. His balance on the stretch — perhaps a credit to the skiing he did as a youngster — has made him one of the — if not the best — movers in the game. And he can defend tirelessly, and with great success.
NextGen star awaits
Whoever wins the semi final between Djokovic and Nadal will face one of the Next Gen stars, either Stefanos Tsitsipas or Alexander Zverev, both yet to win a Grand Slam. It’ll be folly to take them for granted however.
Djokovic and Nadal cannot afford to rest once the semi-final is over. Both the youngsters — top 10 stars in their own right and are well capable of pulling off an upset. They’ve done it numerous times at tour events. This could well be the first ata Major.
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