Men’s tennis finally got a new Grand Slam champion in New York last month as Dominic Thiem, an Austrian in, of all things, his 20s won the United States Open.
Less than a month later, the youth revolution is back on hold at Roland Garros.
The movement still cannot budge Rafael Nadal, 34, and Novak Djokovic, 33, who will face off in Sunday’s French Open men’s final.
That is a buzz killer for the younger set like Stefanos Tsitsipas, who arrived in Paris last month with renewed hope that the men’s game could add a second active Grand Slam champion younger than 30.
But even after all these years, Nadal versus Djokovic is still quite a conversation starter, and Nadal, who skipped the U.S. Open, and Djokovic, who got himself ejected, will now play for the 56th time.
No other men have played more often at the tour level in the Open era. Djokovic has a 29-26 edge and has beaten Nadal in their last three Grand Slam matches.
Sunday’s duel could be quite a rumble. Whatever the outcome, it will be one of their most significant matches.
Records are at stake, including the record for Grand Slam singles titles, which has gradually come to carry the most weight in the sport.
If Nadal wins, he will equal Roger Federer’s record of 20 men’s titles. If Djokovic wins, he will move into close range with 18, which makes this the very rare occasion in which avid Federer fans might just be cheering for Djokovic.
“This match is huge, one of their most important,” said Paul Annacone, who has coached Federer and Pete Sampras. “My biggest key is how Novak’s going to be mentally. He’s been a little bit on edge the last few matches, and that’s not a great place to be if you’re playing Rafa.
“But I also think Rafa has to adjust his game this time more than Novak,” he said. “If Rafa just plays like normal Rafa, it’s going to be a war, but I just think Novak is too comfortable in those normal patterns.”
Rod Laver, the great Australian lefthander who won 11 major titles in the 1960s, has said that he did not even keep track of his total. But those titles have become the coin of the realm for today’s stars.
In this era, unlike Laver’s or Bjorn Borg’s, players rarely skip one of the four major tournaments, which have prospered to such a degree in the last 30 years that they cast an even longer shadow over the regular tour.
Consider the women’s game, in which Serena Williams has won 73 tour singles titles to Martina Navratilova’s 167 and Chris Evert’s 157. Williams’s enduring excellence in the majors — she has won an Open-era record of 23, one shy of Margaret Court’s 24 — makes her many observers’ pick as the greatest player in history.
Nadal and Djokovic, like Federer, have hardly shunned the regular men’s tour, shuttling among continents and playing in most Masters 1000 events. But the majors remain the shop windows where they reach the largest audience. Several factors have played a role in the Big Three’s hoarding of the loot: their tennis genius; advances in nutrition and recovery; their internal drive and desire to keep pace with each other; and the homogenization of surface speeds, which makes it easier for the best to succeed in more places.
Nadal has held the record chase at arm’s length, in part because of his warm relationship with Federer and in part because he is so intent on staying in the now. Djokovic, however, is quite happy to state that the Grand Slam record is one of his primary goals.
“It tells you about their personalities, more than anything,” Annacone said. “Rafa kind of operates in doubt. He creates doubt for himself to motivate himself. Novak has no qualms about laying it out there. He wants to be more accomplished than Roger and Rafa and, I think, show everybody who has not really jumped on his bandwagon: ‘See, I’m better than them. And I have beaten them in my prime for over a decade, so I am the best.’”
Nadal has built his Grand Slam body of work largely at Roland Garros, where he has won 12 titles and compiled a 99-2 record since making his smash-hit debut as 19-year-old in clam-diggers and a sleeveless shirt in 2005.
Djokovic is the only active player to have beaten Nadal at the French Open. Robin Soderling, the powerful Swede who in 2009 was the first to manage it, is retired.
Djokovic’s victory came in straight sets in the quarterfinals in 2015, which many saw as a changing of the guard on clay. It has not worked out that way, at least not yet.
He was upset by Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final that year, and though Djokovic did finally win his first Roland Garros title in 2016, he soon went into a tailspin.
Since re-emerging as the game’s dominant player, he has yet to win a second French Open, while Nadal has kept the trophy, the Coupe des Mousquetaires, under lock and key, winning in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
But Djokovic, now clearly the second-best clay-court player of Nadal’s era — ahead of Federer — is quite capable of prying open the safe.
This had the potential to be Djokovic’s finest season if not for the coronavirus pandemic that halted play for five months and if not for a lapse in judgment at the U.S. Open. Late in the first set of his fourth-round match in New York against Pablo Carreño Busta, Djokovic lost his serve and struck a ball in frustration, hitting a line umpire in the throat.
He was disqualified for his only loss in 2020. He is 37-1 this year and 11-0 on clay after winning the Italian Open and proving that his train wreck in New York was not going to derail him for long.
After beating Federer on his beloved grass last year in a five-set final at Wimbledon, Djokovic now gets a shot at beating Nadal on Nadal’s happiest hunting ground in a major final.
The forecast is for high humidity and temperatures in the 50s — heavy, low-bouncing conditions that, in theory, favor Djokovic.
Unlike Nadal, he does not rely on topspin. Djokovic generally sticks close to the baseline and has proved that he can counter Nadal’s whipping forehand by striking the ball effectively right after it hits the clay. But the lower bounce should make it easier for him to defend and return — already two of his strengths — particularly with his two-handed backhand.
Annacone and others believe that Nadal will need to take more risks than usual and hit down the line more often to have his best chance. Generating consistent depth will also be important.
But this is also a mental duel. Nadal knows that Djokovic is perhaps the only man who can beat him on clay even if Nadal is having one of his better days.
Djokovic knows it, too.
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