Kolkata: It does not get any bigger than this - Novak Djokovic summed it up himself when he set up a marquee match-up against Rafa Nadal, the king of clay, in the semi-finals of French Open on Friday.
A semis line-up of this proportion was always on the cards when the ‘Big Three’ of men’s tennis were clubbed in one half of the draw - and the battlelines got defined further when Roger Federer pulled out to protect his body soon after winning his third round game. The other men’s semi-final on Friday may pit two of the challengers to the men’s throne in No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 6 Alexander Zverev, but there are no prizes on guessing where the spotlight would be focused.
And why not? With Federer deciding to ‘listen to his body’ and taking it year by year - the tennis fans have also begun the countdown on the glorious journey of Nadal and Djokovic - two of the biggest warriors of men’s tennis in the Open era. They have survived several ups and downs to reach where they are today - boasting of a cumulative collection of 38 grand slam titles and looking good for more even in their mid-30s.
It’s the 58th career meeting between them - but a small piece of statistic will underscore Nadal’s infallibility on the Roland Garros surface. While the Serbian world No.1 has a 29-28 record in head-to-head, Nadal leads a whopping 7-1 in French Open meetings and an overall tally of 19-7 in all claycourt meetings.
“It is not like any other match. Let us face it, it is the biggest challenge that you can have: playing on clay against Nadal, on this court on which he has had so much success in his career, in the final stages of a Grand Slam. It does not get bigger than that,” Djokovic said after grafting to a win against Italy’s Matteo Berrettini late on Wednesday.
“Of course, each time we face each other, there is that extra tension and expectations. [The] vibes are different walking on the court with him. But that is why our rivalry has been historic, I think, for this sport. I have been privileged to play him so many times.
“[My] rivalries with him and Roger [Federer] have made me a stronger player, allowed me to understand how I need to improve my game to get to the level where they were when I started playing professional tennis. I will probably pick Rafa as the biggest rival I have ever had in my career,’’ he said.
Nadal, searching for that 21st grand slam title to go one-up on Federer as the man with the highest number of grand slams, had been in imperious form through the tournament and did not look in any serious trouble even in dropping a set against Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman on Wednesday. Djokovic, looking for his 19th slam, was to sweat against the Italian in a a 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5/7), 7-5 win. ‘‘It was really a very difficult match for me,” Djokovic said.
Both these champions, however, have a proven track record of rising against the odds. And their virtual final on Friday promises to be no different!