October 10, 2020
You’ve got to hand it to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Stefanos Tsitsipas turned his semi-final against Djokovic into a classic. But in the end the giants of our sport are simply too good.
Djokovic will go into an extremely demanding Sunday final already somewhat drained.
But if anyone can use Saturday to summon his amazing powers of recovery, it is Novak.
‘I’ll recuperate,’ he said. ‘But Nadal at Roland Garros is the biggest challenge in our sport. This is his home.’
Nadal must now start as favourite. He is 6-1 against Djokovic at Roland Garros and 9-6 in Grand Slam finals overall.
Rafa is now just one match away from equalling Roger Federer’s record of twenty Grand Slam titles.
If he succeeds, you could say the balance of power in tennis changes.
Realistically, Federer would have to win the next Australian Open or Wimbledon 2021 to get his nose back in front again. Otherwise he never will.
But could Djokovic delay any equalling of Federer’s record by snatching an unlikely victory on clay and his own eighteenth Slam?
It’s still possible, even though the most meaningful statistics point to Nadal.
Rafa just won his thirteenth Roland Garros semi-final. He has always won the final in the past once if he reaches it.
His win-loss ratio at Roland Garros is 99-2. Almost unbelievable.
Any ring-rust we thought we saw in Nadal earlier this fortnight has been well and truly shaken off.
His 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (7-0) defeat of the dangerous Diego Schwartzman was magnificently clinical.
Every time the South American raised his game and threatened to come back into the match, Nadal just took his own game to a new, higher level.
In the end Schwartzman became so frustrated that he completely lost his composure in the tie-break and squandered some glorious opportunities.
‘I played smart,’ admitted Nadal. ‘I’m immensely happy to be back in the final here at Roland Garros after about six months of not being able to play.’
Could Novak spoil the party, though? Could the Serb upset the odds and depose the King of Clay?
He would have more chance if he had beaten Tsitsipas a little more cleanly.
Djokovic should have been home and dry in three. He had a match point to win in straight sets but fired wide. That could cost him, ultimately.
Meanwhile Tsitsipas must sense his time at the very top is not far away. His comeback was magnificent.
The Serbs in the crowd were noticeably noisier than the Greeks on Court Philippe-Chatrier for two-and-a-half sets because they had so much more to shout about.
That all changed when Tsitsipas used all his athleticism and flamboyance to hit back.
His serving and all-round strokeplay were truly spectacular in sets three and four. Make no mistake, Stefanos is a massive global superstar in the making.
The 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 scoreline showed what a rollercoaster the match was.
But it also illustrated how ruthlessly Novak put his rival to the sword when it mattered.
Djokovic reflected: ‘I liked how composed I stayed mentally. I feel I was fitter than him physically and he was struggling and fatigued.’
That was partly because Novak tormented Stefanos with a punishing combination of drop-shots and lob-volleys.
When Tsitsipas tried his own drop volleys, Djokovic didn’t just reach many of them. He deftly flicked them back over the net at such devastating angles that the younger man was scrambling desperately to stay in the fight.
That kind of physical pressure took its toll. ‘Unfortunately an injury I picked up in Rome came back and I was unable to fight as I wanted,’ Stefanos explained.
Tsitsipas must strive for even greater core fitness and stamina so that he can fulfil his Grand Slam dreams.
Stefanos is surely a future Wimbledon champion, though. We see him going deep at Wimbledon 2021. And what a following he’ll have in London by then!
For now, however, Nadal and Djokovic are still hogging the limelight because they remain a cut above all their younger rivals.
They are the supreme gladiators. And they deserve their chance to do battle on Sunday in what promises to be yet another thrilling final.
Nadal has talked about the duty of top players to entertain and take people away from their problems in life.
Federer, Djokovic and Rafa have all done that with remarkable consistency over the years. And Roger will be back with his rivals at Wimbledon 2021.
For now, let’s celebrate the two Roland Garros men’s finalists. Djokovic with his guile and precision. Nadal with his power and his extraordinary confidence on clay.
Can Novak live with Rafa’s phenomenal momentum in Paris?
The very best Novak, the one we all admire so much, could yet win a second French Open title on Sunday.
That’s why Nadal will do everything he can to suppress and then overwhelm his old rival from the start. The Spaniard’s aggression will be a sight to behold.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be breathtaking to witness these true masters of their art.
Meanwhile the women’s final between Iga Swiatek and Sofia Kenin is almost too close to call.
Swiatek’s amazing journey could turn Roland Garros into Poland Garros.
If the teenager falters for a second, however, Kenin will be ready to pounce.
The American is the ultimate gritty fighter and she already has the 2020 Australian Open under her belt.
The statistics suggest that Nadal and Kenin will be Roland Garros champions this weekend.
But there is something about Iga Swiatek that makes you wonder whether Sofia can stop her.
We don’t mind who wins. Two classic finals is all we really want.
Then there will only be the Australian Open and another Roland Garros before Wimbledon.
What emotions and celebrations there will be at Wimbledon 2021! Federer will be back. Andy Murray should be close to his best too.
We can’t wait. And in the mean time we’ll enjoy every moment of this weekend’s Roland Garros finals. They should be special.