Can Djokovic stop ‘one-way train’ Nadal?

Annacone and Becker weigh in as Serb looks to avenge recent defeats to his Spanish nemesis

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2020 final©Philippe Montigny/FFT
 - Danielle Rossingh

Get ready for one of the biggest blockbuster matches in tennis: Rafael Nadal v Novak Djokovic.

The pair will meet for the 58th time in the men’s semi-finals at Roland-Garros on Friday.

Although Djokovic narrowly leads the Spaniard 29-28 in career meetings, the Serb has only managed to beat Nadal once in eight previous matches at Roland-Garros. Their semi-final clash is a repeat of last year's final played in October, which Nadal won 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.

“I thought last year was his best those cool conditions,” Paul Annacone, the former coach of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, told “And it was a one-way train."

"Arguably he's the one guy that matches up well. And I thought he was going to be really confident. It turned out I don't think he was and rightfully so. Rafa doesn't lose much here."

Nadal, 35, has only lost twice at Roland-Garros since he won the first of a record 13 titles in Paris when he was a teenager in 2005. Sweden’s Robin Soderling got the better of Nadal in the fourth round in 2009, while Djokovic dethroned his long-time rival in the quarter-finals in 2015.

“I don't think there's anything more difficult in sports, any sport, than beating Nadal here, in three to five sets,” said Annacone. “I mean, look at his record (105-2). As great as Novak is, I just don't see it over five sets.”

Three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker also favours Nadal.  

“I'm not a clairvoyant, but the top favourite for me remains Nadal, that hasn't changed,” said Becker, who is working for Eurosport during Roland-Garros.

Both players are locked in a fierce battle for history, with Nadal gunning for an all-time record 21st Grand Slam title this fortnight, and Djokovic looking to close the gap on the Spaniard by chasing a 19th.

Nadal has defeated Djokovic as recently as last month, in the Rome final in three sets, and should be feeling confident as he carries a 35-match winning streak at Roland-Garros into his showdown with the Serb.

Never one to underestimate his opponents though, the world No.3 expects a tough match against Djokovic, who completed the career Grand Slam when he lifted the trophy in Paris in 2016.

“Best thing is you know that you need to play your best tennis,” Nadal said about playing the top-seeded Serb.

“It's a match that you know what you have to do if you really want to have chances to succeed and to keep going on the tournament. Always a big challenge.

"That's something that is good because in some way we are practicing, we are living the sport for these moments. So that's a good thing.

"The negative thing, it's difficult because you play against one of the best players of the history. That's how it is.”

Djokovic seemed fired up after his quarter-final win over Italy’s Matteo Berrettini, roaring at his box after moving to the last four in four tough sets under the lights.

“It’s not like any other match,” said Djokovic about playing Nadal. “I'll probably pick Rafa as the biggest rival I've ever had in my career. The anticipation for the match against him, any match, any surface, any occasion, is always different from any other.”

Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros 2021, quarter-final© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

The other men’s semi-final features a clash between two stars of the next generation, with Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas taking on Germany’s Alexander Zverev.

The fifth-seeded Tsitispas has beaten the German in five out of seven matches they’ve played.

After winning his previous round, Tsitsipas told reporters he felt “privileged” to have reached four major semi-finals by the age of 22. “But my ego tells me I want more,” he added.

Zverev, 24, was happy he wasn’t drawn in the same half as Nadal and Djokovic.

“It's nice that I didn't play Rafa or Novak in the quarter-finals,” said the German No.6 seed, a losing finalist at last year’s US Open. “I think playing Rafa here in the finals, for example, is even worse. It's even more difficult. But I also got to get there first.”

Becker is confident their time will come.

“At some point, the successors have to come,” Becker said. “Nadal can't rule Paris forever. I also see that Djokovic can win such a tournament, but Tsitsipas and Zverev are also almost on a par. For me, it's just a question of time."