PARIS – Consensus is elusive on many issues, but in an informal vote I conducted over the last 24 hours, there was plenty of consensus on a tennis issue.
What is the best match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic?
Lots of answers and honestly lots of agreement. Number one was clearly the Australian Open final in 2012, which had fluctuating quality but unavailable quantity of 5 hours and 53 minutes. It left both men struggling to stand at the awards ceremony, even though Djokovic had the energy needed to rip his shirt off after closing 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (6), 7- 5 wins at Melbourne Park.
It was the longest Grand Slam singles final in recorded history. The fights were not routinely timed in the earlier days of the sport, but it is hard to imagine anyone going any further considering how long Nadal and Djokovic take between servings and how short the changes of the ends were before the TV coverage came.
“It was clear on the pitch for everyone who has seen the match that we both physically took the last drop of energy we had from our bodies,” Djokovic said. “I think it was just a matter of maybe luck for a few moments, and a matter of knowing that you want this more than maybe the other player at that particular point.”
It was their first five sets against each other and Djokovic actually collapsed in court late in this set after missing a backhand to end a 31-stroke rally. “This is the first knockdown I’ve ever seen in tennis,” said Jim Courier, who commented on the match to Australian television.
Fans also forget that the match ended indoors after rain forced the pull-out roof of the Rod Laver Arena to close out 4-4 in the fourth set. It ended at 1:37 and Djokovic later saw the sun rise in his hotel before finally sleeping, but not before seeing the highlights of his victory.
Nadal was presumably less eager to relive the moment, but he had perspective.
“I lost a fight, but maybe it was the last one I lost that hurts the least because I did everything I could,” Nadal said. “I struggled with everything I had.”
June 11, 2021, 11:58 ET
June 11, 2021, 11:58 ET
Career five sets of records: Tsitsipas: 5-4, Zverev: 16-7.
11 June 2021, 11:46 ET
11 June 2021, 11:46 ET
Fabrice Santoro, the former French star who comments for the British network ITV, is already worried about tonight’s curfew at 23.00 in Paris for spectators. Nadal vs Djokovic are still a long way from the start and they are playing at a famously measured pace. “What’s the worst case scenario for the tournament today?” Asks Santoro. “The worst case scenario is to ask people to leave Court Philippe Chatrier tonight at 22.45, when Rafa and Novak start the fifth set. ”
Both Djokovic and Nadal were strongly favored to reach the semifinals and did so without much drama.
In the fourth round, Djokovic played an uncharacteristic first two sets against Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti and lost both in tiebreakers. But he returned to form the rest of the match until Musetti threw the towel down 6-7 (7), 6-7 (2), 6-1, 6-0, 4-0 after long stretches where he was barely winning points.
Both Djokovic and Nadal lost a set in their quarterfinal match, with Djokovic losing the third set in a 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 victory over ninth seeded Matteo Berrettini, while Nadal fell the second set in his 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 victory over 10th-seeded Diego Schwartzman, who finished a series of 36 consecutive sets won by Nadal.
The one area where Djokovic statistically has a significant advantage over Nadal during this tournament serves: Djokovic has landed 68 percent of his first servings, compared to 62 percent for Nadal, and has only been broken three times in 81 service matches through five games, compared to 11 out of 74 service games that Nadal dropped.
11 June 2021, 11:25 ET
11 June 2021, 11:25 ET
It’s approaching 17:30 in Paris and Zverev and Tsitsipas are early in their fourth set. Nadal and Djokovic are scheduled to follow. If anyone thinks Wednesday night was the French Open’s last night session, they’re dreaming. It was only the last “official” night meeting.
Nadal remains an insurmountable favorite at Roland Garros, but because his world rankings dropped to third, he pulled the top-ranked Djokovic into the semifinals, a round earlier than normally expected of the big two.
While the next one is going to feel anticlimactic, the winner of this match needs to win one more to grab the Coupe des Mousquetaires. Nr. 5, Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 6, Alexander Zverev, who advance to the first semifinal on Friday, each look set to reach their first French Open final.
While either Djokovic or Nadal will be significant favorites, neither Tsitsipas nor Zverev should be overlooked. Both won titles during the French Open, where Tsitsipas triumphed in Monte Carlo and Zverev won in Madrid, where he scored a third victory in a row over Nadal. Tsitsipas also beat Nadal on the screen in Madrid in 2019 and lost to him in a competitive three-set final this year in Barcelona.
Currently tied with Roger Federer at 20, Nadal is two match wins from moving into first place in the Grand Slam men’s singles titles.
Federer was similar to former record holder Pete Sampras when he won his 14th Grand Slam title at the 2009 French Open and moved into his sole possession of the record when he won his 15th a month later at Wimbledon. He was joined by Nadal with 20 pieces when Nadal won last year’s French Open.
However, Djokovic also has designs on the record. He currently holds 18 Grand Slam titles and could reach 21 this year if he wins in Paris as well as Wimbledon and the United States Open. Djokovic is less than a year older than Nadal, but his ability to fight on both grass and hard courts is likely to increase his chances of ending up at the top after all is said and done.
Of course, Federer is not necessarily finished either: he withdrew from the French Open after his third round victory so he could better on the turf swing, where he could claim his own 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon next month.
While there is still a lot to play for, one thing seems certain: Sampras will occupy an ever-distant fourth place, and all three men have a way to go before they match the Serena Williams Open record of 23 titles.
Djokovic lead their head-to-head meetings with a racket string, 29-28. But Nadal can be heard of his crucial advantage on his favorite clay courts, where he has a 19-7 edge.
Nadal won their last two meetings, both of which were on clay. Nadal won 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 last month in the final of the Italian Open and bumped past Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in a skewed French Open final last October.
Djokovic, who has won 10 matches in a row against Nadal away from the clay courts, can take comfort in being the last man to defeat Nadal at the French Open and give him a decisive 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 loss in the quarterfinals in 2015.
Along with a fourth round loss in 2009 against Robin Soderling, the 2015 defeat stands as one of only two spots in Nadal’s otherwise sparkling 105-2 record at Roland Garros. Nadal is unbeaten, 26-0, in the last two rounds of the French Open.