Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 October 2020

Novak Djokovic v Rafael Nadal: French Open final promises to be a heavyweight slugfest

Tennis' pound-for-pound king takes on the tournament's undisputed champion with plenty of history on the line

The greatest and most competitive rivalry in men's tennis plays out for a 56th time on Sunday when Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal meet in the French Open final.

Djokovic, the world No 1 and top seed in Paris, has been a tour de force throughout this disrupted season, winning each of his completed matches and collecting five titles along the way. The Serb's only defeat came via the infamous default at the US Open when he struck a line judge with a ball.

In almost any other setting than Roland Garros, Djokovic would enter Sunday's contest as favourite, but as the 17-time Grand Slam champion said: "This is the house of Rafa."

It most certainly is. Nadal's French Open record is so ridiculous it almost defies logic. In 15 previous visits to Paris, the Spaniard has won the tournament 12 times, winning 99 matches and losing only twice. His only other 'defeat' came when he withdrew from the third round of the 2016 edition with injury.

Records are made to be broken, but Nadal's at Roland Garros will surely stand the test of time.

So, Court Philippe Chatrier will stage a true heavyweight contest between tennis' current pound-for-pound king and the French Open's undisputed champion. Sticking with the boxing parlance, this showdown should be a real slugfest.

Djokovic, 33, has a 29-26 edge over Nadal in their long-running rivalry and has won 14 of their past 18 meetings, including the last three at Grand Slams.

However, the pair's three most recent matches on clay have all gone Nadal's way, with Djokovic's last victory on the dirt coming in the Rome quarter-finals four years ago.

Most pertinently, Nadal, 34, has a 6-1 advantage at the French Open, including wins in the 2012 and 2014 finals. His solitary defeat to Djokovic in Paris occurred in 2015 when the Spaniard was struggling for consistency following one of his lengthy injury layoffs.

While it could appear mission impossible, even for Djokovic, the Serb believes the tournament's postponement could be an advantage in his favour. Typically held in the warmer months of May and June, this year's French Open was rescheduled in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The cooler temperatures have been evident throughout the fortnight, with Nadal one of the most outspoken critics of the conditions. The Spaniard thrives in the heat and bright sunshine and has been wary of the chill and the damp, complaining that players are exposed to dangers as a result.

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Djokovic's epic win over Tsitsipas - in pictures

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"The conditions are different than the ones that we are used to playing in May and June," said Djokovic. "I think that could be a better chance for me, obviously the ball is not bouncing as high over the shoulder as he likes it usually."

If there have been any ill-effects as a result of the conditions, Nadal is yet to show them. The defending champion has raced into the final without dropping a set, although he has only faced one seeded player – Argentine No 12 Diego Schwartzman in the semi-finals. His other five opponents were all outside the top 70; two were ranked 213 and 236.

Nadal said he is not reading too much into his smooth progress in Paris, insisting that whatever the surface or conditions, he needs to be on top form to stop the Djokovic juggernaut.

"Different circumstances, different kind of tournament and different situation," said Nadal, who will move level with Roger Federer's Grand Slam record haul of 20 with victory.

"The only thing I know is to play against Novak, I need to play my best. Without playing my best tennis, the situation is very difficult.

"I know that this is a court where I have been playing well for such a long time, so that helps. He is one of the toughest opponents possible."

Djokovic, the 2016 Roland Garros champion, is aiming for his own slice of history on Sunday: a win will make him the first man in half a century to win all four Grand Slams twice.

History and high stakes aside, this promises to be the latest in a long line of bruising encounters between two great champions. For the handful of supporters lucky enough to get tickets, they are sure to witness a spectacle.

Updated: October 11, 2020 09:09 AM

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