Paris. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal square off in a record fourth successive Grand Slam final on Sunday with the French Open title and a place in tennis folklore at stake.
A win for world number one Djokovic, playing in his first Roland Garros final, will make him only the third man in history — and first in 43 years — to hold all four majors at the same time.
Victory for world number two Nadal will mean becoming the first man to win seven French Opens, breaking a tie for six he currently holds with Swedish legend Bjorn Borg.
Nadal, with a staggering Roland Garros career record of 51 wins and just one defeat, is the overwhelming favorite, having reached his seventh final for the loss of just 35 games in six rounds.
He hasn’t dropped a set and has lost serve just once.
Furthermore, Nadal came into Paris having secured claycourt titles in Barcelona, Monte Carlo and Rome, beating Djokovic in the finals of the last two in straight sets, breaking a seven-final losing streak to the Serb.
But Djokovic has won all of the last three Grand Slam title matches they have played — at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2011, and this year’s epic Australian Open which, at five hours 53 minutes, was the longest ever men’s final.
Not that Djokovic is seeing that as a factor come Sunday.
“This is a different surface, different circumstances,” said the top seed, who reached the final with a straight sets semi-final win over Roger Federer, having saved four match points in his quarter-final win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
“He always plays his best at Roland Garros, and so I expect him to do that as well on Sunday. I know that I have to be playing consistently well on a very high level in order to win best of five against Nadal.”
Djokovic is happy to be going in as underdog having lost all three matches he has played against the Spaniard in Paris in 2006, 2007 and 2008, defeats handed out without even the consolation of one set in the Serb’s possession.
“It’s the ultimate challenge. He won the last two encounters we had on clay in Monte Carlo and Rome,” said Djokovic, looking to win a sixth major on Sunday.
“But I won against him on clay last year two times, back-to-back in eight days, and that’s something that is in the back of my mind. That’s something that can give me confidence when I step on the court on Sunday.”
Djokovic also believes that if he wins, and succeeds where both Nadal and Federer failed, by holding all four Grand Slam titles at the same time, then credit is due to his two main rivals.
The Serb, looking to emulate Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) by possessing all the majors, says he has learned from losing his first nine claycourt meetings with Nadal.
He also won just four of the pair’s first 18 matches on all surfaces while Federer beat him seven times in their opening nine meetings.
“I used to have a lot of doubts if I can really overcome the big challenge of the two strongest players in our sport,” he said.
“I’ve matured. I got stronger. It’s because of them. They made me a better player. This is the beauty of today’s tennis; we make each other better players and better persons on and off the court.”
Nadal, looking to capture a 11th major, believes his wins over Djokovic in Monte Carlo and Rome could be beneficial.
“I won in Rome and Monte Carlo because my tennis was better against Djokovic. Beating him gave me more confidence,” said Nadal.
But he is keen to play down any notions that he is a claycourt superman.
“I work daily; I practice daily. Each time you’re on the court, you know that you might lose. So I have to keep a low profile about it; we have to be humble.
“I’ll have to continue and practice and work and keep my focus until Sunday. So far I got off to a really good start. I’m really satisfied with what’s happened. I’m really happy about the things that life has given me so far.”