Go all the way back to June 8, 2006, when Rafael Nadal moved on at the French Open after his 19-year-old, 63rd-ranked opponent in the quarterfinals quit because of a bad back while trailing two sets to none.
That opponent’s assessment of Nadal after facing him for the first time as pros: “He’s the best on this surface, but he’s not unbeatable. That’s for sure.”
That foe? Novak Djokovic. Fast-forward to the final at Roland Garros on Sunday, when No. 1 Djokovic and No. 2 Nadal will stand across from each other once again at Court Philippe Chatrier, only this time in October after the tournament was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It will be their 56th tour-level meeting – more than any other pair of men in the Open era, which dates to 1968.
And let’s not forget the big picture: This match carries significant weight in the Grand Slam standings that so many fans, and the players themselves, keep tabs on.
Roger Federer, who is 39 and missed most of this season after having two knee operations, owns the men’s record of 20 major championships. Nadal, who is 34, is next among men with 19; Djokovic, 33, stands third with 17.
After Sunday, either Nadal will pull even with Federer for the first time since they were tied with zero apiece, or Djokovic will gain on the leading duo and the totals will read 20-19-18.
For now, this is how each has filled his trophy cabinet:
– Djokovic: 8 at the Australian Open, 5 at Wimbledon, 3 at the U.S. Open, 1 at the French Open;
– Nadal: 12 at the French Open, 4 at the U.S. Open, 2 at Wimbledon, 1 at the Australian Open;
– Federer: 8 at Wimbledon, 6 at the Australian Open, 5 at the U.S. Open, 1 at the French Open.
All three are greats of the game, regardless of where the numbers end up, of course.
Still, as much as Nadal wouldn’t engage in a discussion about his chance to catch Federer after beating Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (0) in the semifinals Friday, he did acknowledge that “it’s good for tennis” if others talk about it.
Rest assured, they will.
Much in the way that for years, people will debate which of the Big Three duos had the most intriguing head-to-head matchup: Federer vs. Nadal, Djokovic vs. Federer, or Nadal vs. Djokovic.
“He’s definitely my greatest rival,” Djokovic said about Nadal on Friday after getting past Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 in the semifinals. “Playing him in so many great matches, of course the past will have some effect, in terms of respect towards each other, I guess — motivation to get out on the court and play your best, knowing that we both have to be at our best in order to win against each other.”
Nadal called Djokovic, who is 37-1 in 2020, the lone loss via disqualification at the U.S. Open last month, “one