It all comes down to this – one of the most storied sporting rivalries between the top seed, Novak Djokovic, and No.2 seed and defending champion, Rafael Nadal.
Now they locks horns for the Roland-Garros title for the third time, the latest chapter on a major stage.
Djokovic and Nadal have squared off at every Grand Slam event and at Sunday’s conclusion, either the Serb will have closed the gap on Nadal’s tally to one major title and two shy of Roger Federer, or the 12-time champion will draw level with Federer’s record 20.
Fifty-five prior encounters, 29 of those to Djokovic, 26 to Nadal – the most tour-level match-ups in the Open Era.
It is a catalogue of clashes on every surface, from their first at Roland-Garros 2006, when Djokovic retired with a back injury, to the final of this year’s ATP Cup in Sydney, which he won before capturing an eighth Australian Open title.
This will be their 16th meeting at a major – 9-6 in Nadal’s favour – and their ninth in a Grand Slam final, which they stand tied at 4-4. It will be their third Roland-Garros final, with the Spaniard having won both previous ones.
Nadal has claimed six of their seven matches in Paris; the Serb being one of only two men to have beaten the King of Clay at his most successful Slam.
Of their 25 meetings on the red dirt, Nadal boasts a 17-7 record, including their past three. However, Djokovic has claimed 14 of their past 18 showdowns overall.
Two of the sport’s greatest, Djokovic and Nadal know each other’s games inside out, but in this most extraordinary of years, much will boil down to who handles the change in conditions, the expectations with history on the line, and the most unusual of lead-ups best.
As Djokovic said, how heavy, slippery and windy the conditions proved would impact both mentally.
“Obviously the conditions are different than the ones that we are used to playing in May and June. I think that could be a better chance for me, obviously the ball not bouncing as high over the shoulder as he likes it usually,” Djokovic said.
Nadal makes no secret he is more partial to hotter conditions on a higher-bouncing, drier clay where his whipping forehand blows have more sting and drag opponents out of position more effectively.
Djokovic will be intent on taking that time away from the Spaniard, especially deploying what his second-round victim Daniel Elahi Galan described as his “rocket forehand”. Few players can consistently step up as close to the baseline on clay as the Serb, to redirect Nadal’s shots with interest.
The top seed’s semi-final with Stefanos Tsitsipas extended some two hours after he failed to convert his first match point. While Nadal cut down 12th seed Diego Schwartzman’s bid in straight sets, he ended up spending only 45 minutes less on court than the Serb in his semi-final. Barring Djokovic’s five-set semi-final, both have been models of efficiency – Nadal spending 13 hours and 13 minutes on court, Djokovic 14 hours and 36 minutes.
The Serb has clocked a whopping 249 winners through six matches – 117 off the forehand and 70 backhand – while Nadal has picked off 181 winners – 110 off his signature forehand and 26 off the backhand.
There is good reason these are the last two standing from the men’s field. Both are dominating on serve and breaking more than others. Djokovic has won 75 per cent of his first-serve points to Nadal’s 68 per cent. However, Nadal is better on second-serve points won at 63 per cent, 10 per cent more than the world No.1.
They rank No.1 and No.2 for service games won – Nadal having held 91 per cent of the time (70 of 77 games) with Djokovic narrowly behind on 88 per cent (79 of 90 games).
The Serb stands alone as best at saving break points on 76 per cent (35 of 46), but Nadal is almost as handy on 74 per cent (20 of 24), while they are neck and neck on return games won. Nadal is tied in first, having broken 49 per cent of his opponents’ service games, while Djokovic is just behind on 47 per cent.
The 12-time champion is more efficient on break-point opportunities, converting 79 per cent (38 of 48), while Djokovic has had vastly more chances but only made good on 53 per cent (42 of 79).
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