The two leading contenders to take home the French Open title next month will meet in an early dress rehearsal on Friday, when world No. 1 Novak Djokovic squares off with nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open. It was at the same quarterfinal stage that Djokovic ripped away Nadal’s grip on the French Open title last year, winning in straight sets.
For Nadal it was a low point in a year full of disappointments. Coming back from an injury-hit end to 2014, the Spaniard failed to rediscover anything like his best form and slipped down the rankings.
His start to 2016 wasn’t any better, having been ousted in the opening round of the Australian Open. However, he has been transformed since getting back on the European clay last month, winning the Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo and another ATP Tour event in Barcelona the very next week.
While he suffered a setback in Madrid last week, losing to Andy Murray in the semifinals, he will now have a valuable chance to test himself against the best in the world and the favorite to take the title at Roland Garros. To earn the matchup, Nadal came past rising young Australian Nick Kyrgios in the last round, despite losing the opening set on a tiebreak.
“I’m playing well, I feel like I am playing at the right level,” Nadal said afterward. “Today was important victory for me, of course, against a very difficult opponent. Let’s keep going. And I know if I am able to play the way that I am playing the last four weeks during the rest of the season, I hope and I believe that I can finish in a high position than what I am today.”
The quarterfinal will be the pair’s 49th meeting, an ATP Tour record. It will also be a contest between the two men who have combined to win the last 11 titles in Rome. While Nadal has won seven of those, it is Djokovic who has claimed the crown the past two years.
The Serbian was given a major scare in his third round match this time around, though. Incredibly, Djokovic lost the first set against Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci 6-0, the first bagel that the 11-time Grand Slam champion has had to swallow since 2012. Although he hit back to win the next two sets, 6-3 6-2. Djokovic accepted afterward that he has yet to hit peak form in the Italian capital ahead of his latest meeting with Nadal.
“I still haven’t played as well as I can and as well as I hope I can play in Rome in these two matches,” he said. “But I didn’t have too much time really to practice in these conditions, you know, coming from Madrid pretty late. It is a big challenge playing against Rafa. The fact that I played against left-handed player today hopefully will kind of get myself positioned and prepared well for next match.”
Djokovic holds a 25-23 edge on Nadal in the head-to-head battle, having won their last six meetings. And the 28-year-old, while still yet to win a first French Open crown, also has a narrow advantage in the number of Masters 1000 titles, with his win in Madrid taking him back in front of Nadal, 29-28.
Match time: Djokovic and Nadal will take the court after the quarterfinal between Andy Murray and David Goffin, which is scheduled to get underway at 8 a.m. EDT.
TV channel: Tennis Channel
Live stream: Tennis Channel Everywhere