Djokovic’s gift to unsettle threatens Rafael Nadal’s kingdom

Rafael Nadal has owned Roland Garros for nearly all of his career. Whether Novak Djokovic can take over the lease on Sunday afternoon depends on two factors: the Spaniard’s desire and the Serb’s neck.

a man hitting a ball with a racket: Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

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Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

Through six matches there has been no sign of the champion’s will waning, as he has battled to win every set. Whether Djokovic’s body – particularly that area stretching down from the top of his spine to the tips of his fingers – can hold up under championship pressure is less certain, whatever the strength of his fightback to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas over five sets in the second semi-final on Friday night. Nadal’s earlier dismissal of Diego Schwartzman had its anxious moments, but there was little doubt he would prevail.

a man hitting a ball with a racket: Rafael Nadal’s dismissal of Diego Schwartzman in the semi-final had its anxious moments, but there was little doubt he would prevail.

© Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
Rafael Nadal’s dismissal of Diego Schwartzman in the semi-final had its anxious moments, but there was little doubt he would prevail.

Related: Nadal and Djokovic see off spirited challenges to reach French Open final

The answer, of course, will arrive at the end of this 53rd French Open, a staggering 12 of which Nadal has won since his debut in 2005. Djokovic disturbed his reign in the 2015 quarter-finals and took the crown in his enforced absence through injury in 2016, but otherwise this kingdom has been ruled from Mallorca.

Djokovic cites their match five years ago as reason to believe he has a decent chance of winning. What he has brought to the discussion is the element of uncertainty that makes great sporting occasions memorable. When he saved two match points to stop Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final last year, he confirmed that his gift for unsettling his peers is as strong as ever. If he can remain standing, he will keep punching.

Opinion is divided, as ever. And Jim Courier, the American who won twice here, is as unsure as most about the outcome. “I thought Rafa was fabulous,” he said on ITV. “I liked the adjustments he made from the Rome match [when he lost to Schwartzman in the quarter-finals]. I liked the fact that he was shifting his return of serve position around a little bit.

“He has been in the normal Rafa form we have been used to seeing at this tournament. He has not been challenged too much. He comes in fresh to another final and he knows it is going to be a tough match. It is going to be a colossal battle between these two titans. There is so much on the line. It is just magnificent to see these two amazing players do it again here at Roland Garros in the final with so much happening.

“It is going to be difficult to finish points. It is going to be colder on Sunday… and I think the drop shot is going to be key for the both of them. Rafa is a little more comfortable with the forehand drop shot and Novak a little more comfortable on the backhand. We will look for that for sure in the final.”

Those are strategies and tactics. What is tougher to measure is sentiment and instinct. Chris Evert, another American in Paris who triumphed here, seems to lean towards Djokovic. “Novak is at times not human,” she said on Eurosport. “I look at Nadal and see a warrior, fighting for everything. He’s going to leave blood on the court. I look at Djokovic and I see more of a robot but in a good sense. The mental part of his game is a level ahead of everyone else. It’s awesome.”

Those who saw Nadal steel himself against the stubborn challenge of Schwartzman would put his mental toughness on a par with Djokovic’s, because neither finalist has any quit in him. If Djokovic were to win, he would need to play on until he was 43 and win every French slam to reach Nadal’s tally in Paris, where the Open era began in 1968. Some records are fire-proof, and that is the safest in the game.

There is a bigger prize at stake, however. Win or lose on Sunday, Djokovic is favourite to overtake Nadal and Roger Federer down the road in accumulating the highest number of trophies across the four grand slams. Together they have 56 majors, 20 of them belonging to the 39-year-old Federer, who is hors d’combat, 19 of them Nadal’s, and 17 the property of Djokovic, who is younger by a year than his active rival.

But all of that is history, past, present and to come. What matters is the final at the end of a bizarre and important tournament that would not have been held at all in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic but for the single-mindedness of the FFT, desperate for cash in their beautiful and expensive refurbished surrounding.

In front of the daily elite of 1,000 spectators allowed in as if it were a royal banquet at Versailles, Nadal and Djokovic have worked their way to the most likely conclusion. I think it will go five bloody sets – and Nadal will be champion again.

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