Explained: Why the Nadal-Djokovic French Open final will be a unique — and unmissable — match-up

Unlike any other Grand Slam final, there is greater significance in the upcoming Parisian duel. And it will possibly have a significant bearing on the ‘Greatest of All Time’ debate.

In a year marred by the Covid-19 pandemic, a Nadal-Djokovic encounter will undoubtedly be the biggest match-up of the season. It’s the biggest rivalry in the sport, and on Sunday, in the final of the French Open, another chapter will be added to the list of epics between the duo.

However, unlike any other Grand Slam final, there is greater significance in the upcoming Parisian duel. And it will possibly have a significant bearing on the ‘Greatest of All Time’ debate.

Why is this considered the greatest rivalry in tennis?

Sunday will mark the 56th match-up between the two legends. It’s the most-played tie in the history of the sport. Djokovic leads 29-26 in the 55 matches played so far.

At the Grand Slams, they’ve faced each other 15 times, and eight times in the final, sharing a 4-4 record. This will be the third time they’re facing off in a French Open final, with Nadal winning both the previous meetings in 2014 and 2012.

At Roland Garros, they have met seven times and Nadal has a 6-1 edge. Their first-ever meeting on tour also happened to be at the French Open, in the 2006 quarterfinal.

What is at stake for Nadal?

Nadal has never lost the final of the French Open. In fact, he’s only lost two matches at the clay-court Grand Slam — in a four-set fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling of Sweden in 2009, and in straight sets to Djokovic in the 2015 quarterfinal.

He’s won 12 titles at Roland Garros so far, and a 13th on Sunday will see Nadal’s tally increase to 20 Grand Slam titles, taking him level with Roger Federer’s all-time record.

If Nadal wins Sunday’s final in straight sets, it’ll be the fourth time he’d have won a Major without dropping a set, taking him past joint-record holders Bjorn Borg and American Richard Sears.

What is at stake for Djokovic?

If Djokovic wins, he’ll become the only player to have won the French Open after beating Nadal in that edition. He’ll also be the only player to have beaten the Spaniard in the final of the tournament.

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His overall tally of Grand Slams will move up to 18, which will see him trail Nadal by one and Federer by two titles.

He will also become the only player in the Open Era to have won each Grand Slam at least twice. Federer hasn’t done it since he (and Djokovic) have won the French Open just once in 2009 and 2016 respectively, and Nadal has only one Australian Open title (2009) to his name.

Why is Djokovic expected to eventually hold the all-time Grand Slam record?

The Serb, a year younger than 34-year-old Nadal, has 17 Major titles to his name. Nadal has 19, and Federer, now 39, is on 20.

Age may be on Djokovic’s side compared to his two greatest rivals, but the 33-year-old also has a game suited to all surfaces. He’s a defensive baseliner — by far the best retriever in the game — who has become much more aggressive in his approach over the years. He has the ability to overcome opponents on hard, grass and clay courts, often with alarming ease.

He’s won 11 hard court Grand Slams (eight at the Australian Open and three at the US Open), five titles at Wimbledon and the 2016 French Open. With such proficiency, there won’t be any surprise to see him rake in multiple Slams in a single calendar year for the next few seasons, which will see him cross Nadal and Federer.

The Serb recently also surpassed Nadal for the most ATP Masters 1000 titles, winning his 36th at Rome two weeks before the French Open. He’s also closing in on Federer’s record of 310 weeks as World No. 1 – Djokovic is currently on 288.

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