Novak Djokovic was trailing 0-5 in the first set in the French Open semi-final against Rafael Nadal. It looked like business as usual. Nadal was on course to reach the final. Djokovic had a mini fight-back by winning three games but in the end, Nadal won the first set 6-3. It looked like Djokovic would once again be blown out of the water at Roland Garros. But, in a sparkling display of tennis, Djokovic totally turned the tables on the ‘Emperor of Clay’.
Djokovic had a similar feeling when he lost the Rome Masters final to Nadal. However, in the post-match interaction, the Serb was not too bothered about the result. He just wanted to focus on the job at hand. Nadal was in his zone in the clay-court tournaments heading into Roland Garros, but he was looking mortal. The Spaniard lost to Alexander Zverev for the third time during the Barcelona Masters. In Rome, Nadal had the advantage of Novak Djokovic being fatigued with back-to-back three-setters ahead of the final.
But, at Roland Garros in 2021, the momentum shifted to Djokovic in the most dramatic manner.
When the sun set at Roland Garros, the temperature dropped. Something happened in Nadal’s game that stole his mojo. The top-spin, which has been Nadal’s potent weapon, was dulled. Djokovic squandered a break in the second set but Nadal’s unforced errors crept up. Djokovic won the second set. Suddenly, it looked like Djokovic was becoming Nadal’s kryptonite on Court Philippe Chatrier.
Nadal made a total of 16 unforced errors in the third set. In the tie-breaker, Djokovic’s familiar mental strength helped him take a two-set lead. It was a sublime display of tennis from Djokovic and Nadal had no answers. In the fourth set, Djokovic put on a masterclass and won the match to finally end Nadal’s dominance at Roland Garros.
Nadal has lost only three matches in 16 years of playing in Roland Garros. He has won 105 games. His records at Roland Garros might never be broken in history. He has lost only three times at the tournament. But, it is important to note that out of the three losses, two have been to Djokovic. Apart from Djokovic, the only player to have beaten Nadal comprehensively at Roland Garros is Robin Soderling. But, Soderling never managed to get the better of Nadal after that high of 2009. On the other hand, Djokovic and Nadal have scripted a rivalry for the ages.
Djokovic is the only player in the history of Tennis to have a positive head-to-head ratio against both Federer and Nadal. In 58 encounters, Djokovic has a 30-28 record against Nadal while he has a better record against Federer with 27-23. Imagine, among the greatest two in Tennis, Djokovic has a better head-to-head record against both.
One more point sums up the debate of the G.O.A.T debate in favor of Djokovic. He has beaten both Nadal and Federer in their respective strongholds. Djokovic has beaten Nadal twice in the French Open. The Serb has beaten Federer in Wimbledon. On the other hand, Nadal has never achieved success against Djokovic in Australia but has done well in the US Open. Federer has not beaten Djokovic in Australia since 2007.
If Djokovic wins the French Open final on Sunday against Stefanos Tsitsipas, then he will be the greatest of all time. Djokovic would have 19 Grand Slam wins, one behind Nadal and Federer’s tally of 20. But, he would become the first player since Rod Laver to win all four Grand Slams twice.
But, in the Open Era, Djokovic will become the first player on the planet to win all four Grand Slams twice. Nadal has not won the Australian Open twice while Federer seems destined to have only one French Open title that he won in 2009. Nadal might get one more opportunity in Australia but Djokovic is on top of his game. With age on Djokovic’s side as compared to Nadal and Federer, a win in the French Open will seal his place in the pantheon of greats.
Djokovic has won four consecutive matches against Tsitsipas and has a 5-2 head-to-head record against the Greek. But, in the last two matches, Tsitsipas has pushed Djokovic to the limit. Djokovic’s quest for greatness could be derailed by Tsitsipas.
There is also the potential of gold in the Tokyo Olympics later in July-August. Nadal is only the second player after Andre Agassi to have the golden slam. Djokovic has not yet won the gold in the Olympics. If he wins the French Open and also the Olympic singles gold in Tokyo, then Federer and Nadal might have to make way in the Hall of Legends for Djokovic. 2021 is a year of immense potential for Djokovic. He is one step closer to achieving his destiny as the greatest tennis player of all time. Sunday could seal it.