Tall numbers detail the Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal rivalry. They have clashed a record 57 times, with the head-to-head poised at 29-28. The world No. 1 trails Nadal 1-7 at Roland Garros, where the Spaniard has triumphed an astonishing 13 times.
On Friday, the titans of tennis will meet in the French Open semifinals, while the other last four clash pits fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas against the sixth-seeded Alexander Zverev.
Djokovic-Nadal. The unstoppable force and the immovable object. Neither will blink, one will win. “It’s not like any other match,” Djokovic said of playing Nadal. “It’s the biggest challenge you can have, playing on clay, against Nadal, on this court (Philippe Chatrier) on which he has had so much success. It doesn’t get bigger than that.”
The Serb, who put out Italian Matteo Berrettini in a drama-filled, last-eight clash, saluted his storied rivalry with the Spaniard. “Each time we face each other there’s that extra tension and expectations,” the 34-year-old said. “The vibes are different walking on the court with him. That’s why our rivalry has been historic for this sport. I’ve been privileged to play him so many times.”
Djokovic, who has credited Nadal and Roger Federer for raising the bar, said, “I’ll probably pick Rafa as the biggest rival I’ve ever had in my career. The anticipation for the match against him – any match, any surface, any occasion, is always different from any other.”
Nadal, who varied the pace of play and used the angles that are a go-to for a left-hander in the final last year, put things in perspective. “It’s going to be an important match for both of us. But it is a semifinal, is not a final. That’s a big difference,” the 20-time major winner said. “The winner of that match needs to keep going, a lot of work to do to try to achieve the final goal here.”
Nadal, 35, listed the pros and cons of taking on the world No. 1. “The best thing is you know that you need to play your best tennis. Always a big challenge. That’s good because that’s why we are practising,” he said, before adding, “The negative thing, it’s difficult because you play against one of the best players of the history.”
The positives and negatives aside, it will be a battle of wills. They’ll test and tease, push and punish to take that next step in the tournament, a place in the title-match.
TSITSIPAS TAKES ON ZVEREV
The latest chapter of Djokovic v Nadal has overshadowed Friday’s other semifinal between Greek fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and sixth seeded Alexander Zverev of Germany. They have met seven times but just once on clay in Madrid in 2019 when Tsitsipas triumphed.