Nadal, Djokovic gear up for biggest showdown of their rivalry

 - Ravi Ubha

History is on the line in Sunday's high-stakes Roland-Garros final

Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros 2015, quarter-final© Philippe Montigny/FFT

To say that history is on the line when Rafael Nadal faces Novak Djokovic in the men’s final at Roland-Garros would be like calling the Eiffel Tower an okay landmark. 

Every time the two titans battle in a Grand Slam final, the record books require tweaking no matter what happens.

But on Sunday, it truly is one for the ages with Nadal attempting to tie Roger Federer’s men’s record of 20 majors and Djokovic seeking his 18th Grand Slam trophy.

The youngest of the all conquering 'Big Three', Djokovic has never been within one major of Nadal or two of Federer.

Yet there’s even more. 

If Djokovic triumphs, he would become the first man in the Open Era to claim each of the Grand Slams at least twice.

“Massive match, so much at stake for both, might say this match is now the biggest match in the men’s Open Era,” Brad Gilbert, ESPN broadcaster and the former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Murray, wrote on Twitter.

Djokovic somewhat played down the magnitude of Sunday’s tussle yet wasn’t about to minimise it, either.

“It does have a certain I would say significance and difference when I play Roland-Garros finals to any other slam final,” said the 33-year-old, into the last stage for the fifth time. “This is the one that I won the least, so of course I am extremely motivated to try to get my hands on another trophy.”

So who has the edge?

On paper, it would be bold to go against Nadal.

He owns 12 titles at Roland-Garros and has never lost a semi-final or final on Parisian clay.

He owns a 6-1 record against the world No. 1 at Roland-Garros, including 2-0 in finals.

“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,” said Djokovic. “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.”

Djokovic is one of two players, alongside Robin Soderling, who have beaten Nadal at Roland-Garros — in the 2015 quarter-finals — and has prevailed in their last three Grand Slam contests.

All of which were blows to Nadal. 

The first was the aforementioned encounter at Roland-Garros. In the second, at Wimbledon in 2018, Djokovic’s renaissance truly began by overcoming Nadal in a five-hour semi-final.

Then in last year’s Australian Open final, Djokovic topped Nadal in an altogether different scenario — needing a mere two hours.

Rafael Nadal Novak Djokovic Roland-Garros 2014© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

“Without playing my best tennis, the situation is very difficult. I know that is a court that I have been playing well for such a long time, so that helps,” Nadal, 34, said, referring to Court Philippe-Chatrier. “But at the same time, he has an amazing record here, too, being in the final rounds almost every single time.

“Is one of the toughest opponents possible. But I am here to keep trying my best. I like to play in this scenario. I know I have to make a step forward. I think I did one (Friday against Schwartzman). But for Sunday is not enough. I need to make another one. That's what I'm looking for.”

Nadal has spoken about how the cool conditions at this Roland-Garros aren’t as favourable to him compared to the  tournament’s usual slot of late May and early June but he hasn’t relinquished a set all tournament.

There was, however, a minor blip in the third set of his semi-final against familiar foe Diego Schwartzman.

Nadal led 4-2, 30-0 in the third only to then have to save three break points at 5-5.

Once that was done, he didn’t concede a point in the ensuing tiebreak. 

Djokovic appeared to have none of the neck and shoulder issues that bothered him in the quarter-finals against Pablo Carreno Busta, though was taken to five sets and nearly four hours by Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semi-finals after holding a match point on his own serve in the third.

But like Nadal, he finished with a flourish, outlasting Tsitsipas physically and continuing to press his opponent for a 6-1 win in the fifth.

If he’s to win Sunday, Swedish tennis legend Mats Wilander figures Djokovic will need to be on court even longer.

“Of course (Nadal) prefers the warmer weather,” said the three-time Roland-Garros winner while working for Eurosport. “But you’re going to have to play for five hours to take Nadal on a slow clay court. He adjusts to the conditions at Roland-Garros by far better than anyone else.”

Djokovic is hoping the autumn conditions come to his aid in his latest attempt against the Spaniard in Paris.

"Obviously the conditions are different than the ones that we are used to playing in May and June. I think that could be a better chance for me, obviously the ball not bouncing as high over the shoulder as he likes it usually," the 33-year-old said, referring to Nadal's signature topspin.

"Look, regardless of the conditions, he's still there, he's Rafa, he's in the finals and we're playing on clay.

"Best-of-five playing him in the finals at Roland Garros, I know that feeling. I did lose to him on this court most of the matches that we played, but I also won one match in 2015 in straight sets in quarters. That's the match that I'll look back at and obviously try to take some positives out of it and use it tactically against him."