Rafael Nadal has been keen to stress that it will only be a quarterfinal, but there can be no downplaying the significance of his showdown with Novak Djokovic at the 2015 French Open on Wednesday. The pair have already squared off more times than any other two players in tennis history, and their 44th meeting will arguably be the most-anticipated Grand Slam quarterfinal of the Open era.
It is the nine-time champion, Nadal, against the undisputed best player in the world, Djokovic. The winner may only garner a place in the semifinal, but it would be a major surprise were they to face a greater challenge en route to a title that they would be an overwhelming favorite to go on and win. For the Spaniard it is a chance to take a giant step toward matching the achievement of his beloved soccer team Real Madrid in the Champions League last season by claiming "la decima"-- a feat never before managed by any man at one Grand Slam. But Djokovic is vying for his own place in history.
Emerging in an era dominated by quite possibly the two greatest players ever to play the game, Nadal and Roger Federer, meant Djokovic often being seen as the third-wheel. Yet competing in the strongest period men’s tennis has ever seen only strengthens the weight of his already significant achievements. To date he has amassed 149 weeks as world No. 1, eight more than Nadal and good enough for sixth on the all-time list, as well as eight Grand Slam titles, level with legends like Andre Agassi, Ken Rosewall and Jimmy Connors.
But winning the French Open would still mean so much. It is the one Grand Slam title to elude him, and the one hurdle remaining to make him only the eighth man in history to win the Career Grand Slam. Speaking immediately after winning the Australian Open in February, Djokovic was already looking ahead to Paris.
“It’s very important. If I don’t succeed in doing that in my career it’s not the end of the world, but I am definitely going to keep on trying,” he said. “I have been very, very close and that allows me to believe I can make that final step and that’s something that keeps me going.”
Indeed in the last three years Djokovic has been agonizingly close to lifting the trophy aloft, only to on each occasion be stopped by the man he will face on the opposite side of the net on Court Philippe Chatrier on Wednesday. Each time Djokovic won at least a set, losing in four in the 2012 final before getting his closest yet in the semifinals a year later only to go down 9-7 in the fifth set. Last year, Nadal was able to recover from losing the first set to run away to take the title in four.
Djokovic has won five of the pair’s last six meetings and their last three on clay away from the French Open, but winning three of five sets in Paris against perhaps the greatest competitor the sport has ever seen has remained a task beyond the Serbian. He is not alone in that. Only Swede Robin Soderling, in 2009, has ever beaten Nadal at the French Open, with the man from Mallorca amassing a record of 70-1 at Roland Garros.
The pre-match form, though, has never been weighted so heavily in Djokovic’s favor. Djokovic will head onto court having won 26 straight matches, while Nadal has failed to win a single title during the European clay-court swing for the first time ever heading into the French Open.
Still only 28, Djokovic will have further chances to achieve his dream of dethroning Nadal in Paris and taking a full haul of Grand Slam titles, but were he to come up short once again there will surely be a part of him that will wonder “if not now, then when?”
Prediction: Before the start of the tournament, Djokovic looked to be a clear favorite to beat Nadal and to take the title. Yet since the event got underway last week, the feeling that Nadal can just never be written off at Roland Garros has only increased. He has looked impressive in comfortably progressing to the last eight and there is no doubt that he feels more comfortable on the huge clay court of Philippe Chatrier than any other in the world.
Still, the standard of his opposition will jump enormously on Wednesday against the world No. 1, who has yet to lose a set. The conditions in Paris could play a major part. For Nadal the warmer the better to give his lethal top-spin forehand even more bounce off the clay. But the forecast is mixed, and it could be Djokovic left smiling. Nadal can never be discounted on his favored court at an event he has dominated, but Djokovic this time has to be the favorite.
Djokovic to win in five sets
TV Channel: ESPN2