Historic 15-year rivalry filled with tension, expectation


The 58th meeting between world No.1 Novak Djokovic and clay court supremo, Rafael Nadal, headlines the men’s semi-final at the 2021 French Open.

Just one year separates the two players in age and also in their head-to-head encounters. Djokovic has won 29 times while Nadal has prevailed 28 times in a rivalry that started in 2006 and still keeps tennis fans animated on the sidelines.

After dropping his first set in the tournament against Diego Schwartzman in the quarterfinal, Nadal said of his impending clash against Djokovic, “If that is the case, we know each other well. Everybody knows that in these kinds of matches anything can happen.” Nadal has a 105-2 win-loss record at Roland Garros with the two losses coming against Robin Soderling in 2009 and Djokovic in 2015.

After the crowd chaos that encapsulated his match against Matteo Berrettini, Djokovic revealed in his press conference that it will always be a privilege to go up against Nadal, especially at the French Open.

“It’s not like any other match,” Djokovic started, let’s face it, it is the biggest challenge you can have playing against Nadal on clay; on this court in which he has had so much success in his career.

“In the final stages of Grand Slam, it doesn’t get bigger than that. Of course, each time we face each other, there is that extra tension and expectation and vibes are different walking on the court with him. But that’s why our rivalry has been historic for the sport and I have been privileged to play him so many times.”

In the other semi-final, the young guns-Stefanos Tsitsipas, 22, and Alexander Zverev, 24 come head-to-head for the eighth time since their first meeting in 2018. In their previous seven meetings, the Greek Tsitsipas has had the better of his German opponent and has the victory in their sole clay clash to date-in the quarterfinal of the 2019 Madrid Masters.

Tsitsipas has dropped just one set in Paris, against John Isner in the third round and his three-set win over second-ranked Dani Medvedev, in the quarters will have emboldened him further.

After a first-round hiccup against Oscar Otte, Zverev has improved and not dropped any set, blowing away the likes of Kei Nishikori and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and he has spent considerably less time on court.

Tsitsipas believes if he continues doing the things that him this far, he will proceed further. “Of course, I’m playing good, and I think if I keep repeating the process, keep repeating the everyday hustle that I put, for sure there’s going to be a reward.”

For Zverev, the key is to stay loose. “I’m maybe a little bit calmer at the tournaments now,” he said. “But the end goal hasn’t changed.” The goal for both young guns is the chance to face the best clay court player in history or the game’s best player on Sunday.

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