History will be at stake when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic meet for a 56th time in the French Open final on Sunday.
Many things are different at Roland Garros this year but the tournament will conclude with the world’s two best players battling it out – Nadal for his 20th grand slam title to tie Roger Federer’s record; Djokovic for his 18th and to become the first man in the Open era to win all four slam titles at least twice.
Nadal is once again through to the final without dropping a set after overcoming a minor third-set wobble to defeat Diego Schwartzman 6-3 6-3 7-6 (0) and reach his 13th French Open final.
The Spaniard has never lost in either the semi-finals or final at Roland Garros but one of the only two defeats he has suffered on the Parisian clay came against Djokovic in the quarter-finals five years ago.
This will be their eighth meeting at Roland Garros, with Nadal having won six of them, including both finals, but Djokovic leads the overall head-to-head 29-26 and has won 10 of the last 13 meetings.
The Serbian said: “He’s lost twice in his entire career on this court. Obviously the conditions are different than the ones that we are used to playing in May and June.
“I think that could be a better chance for me, obviously the ball not bouncing as high over the shoulder as he likes it usually. Regardless of the conditions, he’s still there, he’s Rafa, he’s in the finals and we’re playing on clay.
“Best-of-five (sets), playing him in the finals at Roland Garros, I know that feeling. I did lose to him on this court most of the matches that we played, but I also won one match in 2015 in straight sets.
“That’s the match that I’ll look back at and obviously try to take some positives out of it and use it tactically against him.
“I’m not feeling exhausted physically so much after tonight’s match, obviously almost four hours. It was a great battle. But I feel fine. I think a day and a half will be plenty of time for me to recover. I’m really looking forward to a great battle with Rafa.”
The world number one will have to be significantly more ruthless than he was against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semi-finals on Friday.
Djokovic looked to be heading for a relatively straightforward victory when he served for the match at 5-4 in the third set but a match point came and went as Tsitsipas staged a brilliant fightback to force a decider.
The Greek won just six games against Nadal in his first slam semi-final in Australia last year but showed how much he has matured since before wilting physically during the fifth set and going down 6-3 6-2 5-7 4-6 6-1.
Djokovic, who had struggled with neck and arm problems in the quarter-finals against Pablo Carreno Busta, said: “I was definitely not pleased with the way I played the finishing stages of the third and fourth set, but I was very pleased with the way I kept my composure mentally throughout the entire match.
“I did feel that even though I lost the third and fourth, I still felt like I was the better player on the court. I had more control. I just felt comfortable playing. Credit to him for fighting back. He just played terrific tennis.”
Tsitsipas was left with mixed emotions, the 22-year-old saying: “I feel happy and at the same time sad. It could have been a better result for me today. Novak showed once again what an incredible athlete (he is) and his ability on the courts.
“Unfortunately towards the end of the match an injury that I had during my match in Rome came back. It was difficult to close the match in a fighting way. But I tried my best despite all of this. I’m happy that I came back from two sets to love down and tried to stay in the match as long as possible.”
Nadal had lost to Schwartzman in Rome but used that experience to turn the tables here, with the only real moments of concern coming when the Argentinian fought back from 2-4 in the third set and forced three break points at 5-5.
Nadal played a perfect tie-break, though, and said: ” I know I have to make a step forward. I think I did one today. But for Sunday is not enough. I need to make another one. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m going to work hard to try to make that happen.”