When the French Open draw was announced last week, the one potential matchup that left everyone in the tennis world salivating of course involved the sport’s two biggest rivals: No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 7 Rafael Nadal.
Now meeting for a record 44th time in their already storied careers, Djokovic and Nadal blazed a fiery trail to their quarterfinal matchup Wednesday at Philippe-Chatrier Court.
The top ranked Serbian has yet to lose a single set in Paris this year, most recently bouncing home crowd-favorite and No. 20 Richard Gasquet in the fourth round 6-1 6-2 6-3 to reach the quarters for the sixth straight year and eighth time in 11 career appearances.
Nine-time Roland Garros champion Nadal, who’s overall gotten the better of Djokovic for 23 victories over the course of their nine-year history, dropped only one set in route to the quarters. The Spanish lefty needed four sets to overcome American Jack Sock for a 6-3 6-1 5-7 6-2 win in the fourth round, his record 70th triumph at the French and 25th overall this season.
Nadal has the chance to upend perhaps the one player who stands in his way from a record 10th slam on his 29th birthday, but his emotions seemed torn when he described the upcoming battle as the “toughest quarterfinal match of my” career only to later downplay it’s importance to BBC Sport.
"It is not the final, you know," Nadal said. "It's a quarter-final. And, no, the winner of that match will not be the Roland Garros champion.
"They will be a semi-finalist of Roland Garros. That makes a big difference. Even if it's a special match, it's a quarter-final match."
Nadal has consistently denied Djokovic at the French Open, the only trophy missing from the Serb’s career slam. Of the six times the pair have stepped onto the Paris clay, Nadal’s walked away the victor including last year’s final and 2012’s championship.
Djokovic also missed his best opportunity thus far to claim the French back in 2009, when Nadal fell in the fourth round. Djokovic slipped in straight sets to Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round.
Yet heading into this year’s tournament, despite Nadal’s esteem as the greatest clay player in history, Djokovic was viewed as the prohibitive favorite due to his massive success in the months leading up to the French. Djokovic has nearly evened the all-time match record with five wins in their last six meetings dating back to 2013. Djokovic also took Nadal down in straight sets 6-3 6-3 in the Monte Carlo Masters semifinals in April.
However, Djokovic did fail to parlay his success against Nadal on clay in Rome last year and wound up losing three straight sets in the French final after taking the first. Nadal also owns the all-time series on clay 14-5, though nine of those wins came between 2006 and 2009.
"Of course it is a different approach mentally when you play Nadal in quarter-finals than any other player," Djokovic said. "There is no doubt about that. I'm going to try to keep my routine the same and not give so much importance to the match.
"I know what I need to do to have a chance to win. That doesn't mean that I will win. The future is unpredictable."
Nadal’s injury history could be a weak spot for Djokovic to exploit at the French. Nadal has shown signs of wear and tear over the last six months, with his back injury from a year ago rearing its ugly head in Miami three months ago, and his lone singles title this season came in Argentina in February. Otherwise, he’s fallen in the later stages of every other tournament this year.
The winner moves on to face either No. 3 Andy Murray or No. 8 David Ferrer, whose match will occur simultaneously over at Suzanne-Lenglen Court, in the semifinals.
Start Time: Coverage will begin at 8 .m. ET, but first Serena Williams and Sara Errani will clash, followed by Djokovic and Nadal.
TV Channel: ESPN2
Live Online Stream: A live stream is available at Watch ESPN here