The stakes couldn’t be much higher when Rafael Nadal meets Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s French Open men’s final.
Nadal bids to match Roger Federer’s men’s grand slam record of 20 majors while Djokovic aims for No. 18 to get the closest he has ever been to both of his “Big Three” rivals.
The tennis behemoths advanced in contrasting fashion Friday against less experienced players, with Djokovic going five sets against Stefanos Tsitsipas in Paris.
Nadal started by beating Diego Schwartzman 6-3 6-3 7-6 (0) to reach a staggering 13th French Open final. While, Djokovic downed Tsitsipas 6-3 6-2 5-7 4-6 6-1 in the second semifinal to earn his spot in a fifth clay court grand slam final.
The world No. 1 showed no sign of the neck and shoulder injuries he sustained in the quarterfinals in his much anticipated rematch with Pablo Carreno Busta and was on his way to a straight-set win, too, but erred on a match point in the third on serve and ended up spending nearly four hours on court.
Will it be a factor Sunday?
Asked who the favorite was, Djokovic — who leads Nadal 29-26 in their meetings but trails 6-1 at the French Open — said it was the Spaniard.
“Here, obviously, him because this is his house with all the titles he’s won,” said Djokovic in an on-court interview. “It’s the biggest challenge maybe you can have in our sport on all surfaces, to play Nadal here at Roland Garros.”
But even though Nadal usually bosses their French Open meetings, Djokovic won the last one in 2015 and has claimed their last three grand slam duels overall.
That included crushing Nadal in the Australian Open final last year in two hours.
“Without playing my best tennis, the situation is very difficult,” Nadal told reporters. “I know this is a court that I have been playing well for such a long time, so that helps. 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 today. But for Sunday is not enough. I need to make another one.
“That’s what I’m looking for. I’m going to work hard to try to make that happen.”
Schwartzman and Tsitsipas both missed break points in the first game and were immediately broken to set the tone in the first set.
And they needed to, realistically, win the openers to have a chance of engineering mammoth upsets.