Over the years, promotional television advertisements for the French Open have had a similar theme. There’d be the face of a weeping Martina Hingis, frustrated images of Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, and even a forlorn expression from the stoic and great Pete Sampras.
The caption would suggest: for all their achievements and success, it’s only the crown at Roland Garros that eluded them. And then the picture would switch to that of Rafael Nadal, beaming as he holds aloft his first Coupe des Mousquetaires, then the second, then third… and finally the 12th.
Today, that unbreakable Spanish wall on the Parisian red brick dust will be gunning for his 13th French Open title, against his biggest rival, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
It will be the 56th match-up between the top two seeds – the most-played tie in the history of the sport. It’s the 16th time they face each other at a Grand Slam, and the ninth occasion in a Major final (they share a 4-4 record). This is also the third time they face off for the title at the French Open.
History at stake
But this match, for all that has transpired in this curtailed year, will be about much more than just deciding who wins the 2020 French Open title. There is history at stake, and the result could have a significant bearing on the ‘Greatest of All Time’ debate.
When all is said and done, and the Big 3 (also including a certain Roger Federer) hang up their racquets, Djokovic might well be the one holding the all-time record for the highest number of Grand Slam titles in the men’s game.
The Serb, a year younger than 34-year-old Nadal, has 17 Major titles to his name. Nadal has 19, and Swiss maestro Federer, now 39, is currently on 20.
Age may be on Djokovic’s side in this era of tennis where a new guard of talented players has started to constantly push the seemingly unshakable veteran champions.
But the 33-year-old also has a game suited to all surfaces. A defensive baseliner – by far the best retriever in the game – who has become much more aggressive in his approach over the years, Djokovic can decimate opponents on hard, grass and clay courts.
He’s won 11 hard court Grand Slams (eight at the Australian Open and three at the US Open), five titles at Wimbledon and the 2016 French Open. With such proficiency, there won’t be any surprise to see him rake in multiple Slams in a single calendar year for the next few seasons, which will see him cross Nadal and Federer.
The Serb recently surpassed Nadal for the highest number of ATP Masters 1000 titles, winning his 36th at Rome two weeks before the French Open. He’s also closing in on Federer’s record of 310 weeks as the World No 1 – Djokovic is currently on 288.
Nadal, meanwhile, has been virtually unconquerable at the French Open. Twelve of his 19 Grand Slam titles have come on the Parisian clay, and he’s never lost in the final at Roland Garros. In the 13 years on tour that he’s won a Major, seven seasons have seen him win just the French Open. It’s been his go-to Slam when winning elsewhere has been a tough task.
He’s won the Roland Garros title without dropping a set three times – tying him with Bjorn Borg and American Richard Sears (who played in the 1880s) for the most Slams without losing a set.
Today, he has the chance to break that tie. But he’ll have to beat one of the only two players who have ever defeated him at the French Open – the other being Swede Robin Soderling in 2009.
A win for Nadal will tie him with Federer’s record of 20 Slams. Djokovic will go up to 18 if he wins. But should the Serb win, he will remove that one asterisk from his career that even Federer couldn’t erase: not beating Nadal in the final of the French Open.
It will also make him the only player in the Open Era to have won all four Grand Slams at least twice.
Serb on a roll
So far, in this pandemic-hit season, Djokovic has a 36-1 win-loss record. And he’s arguably the only person who can topple Nadal off his Parisian perch. But that won’t be easy. After all, winning a Grand Slam 12 times, and losing just twice at the venue, means that Nadal is the perennial favourite at the French Open.
And Djokovic knows that.
“I hopefully will be able to play my best tennis, because that’s what’s going to be needed in order to have a shot at the trophy,” he said after his semi-final win over Stefanos Tsitsipas.
“But look, I am in position to be close to the trophy. I’m in the last match of the tournament, playing against the biggest rival, the biggest obstacle and challenge that you can have. This is what it comes down to.”
Before there was Ronaldo-Messi, there was the Nadal-Federer rivalry. Djokovic joined the mix a few years later, but was considered, and perhaps is still considered by some sections of fans, as the third wheel.
But if he wins today, he’ll be in the driver’s seat, poised to end all debates about who is the greatest of all time.
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