Novak Djokovic will bid for revenge against Rafael Nadal when the long-standing rivals meet for a 58th time on Friday.
Since the French Open draw was made two weeks ago, this semi-final clash has appeared inevitable, and Djokovic will attempt to do what he only he and Robin Soderling have managed before and defeat Nadal at Roland Garros.
Djokovic’s victory came in the quarter-finals in 2015, and he was being talked about as potentially a narrow favourite going into last year’s final against the great Spaniard only to be given a lesson in clay-court tennis for two sets.
“Obviously it’s a well-anticipated semi-final,” said Djokovic, who holds a narrow 29-28 lead in the head-to-head.
“A lot of people talked about that potential match-up. Here we are. We are going to face each other another time. We had some battles over the years on this court. Last year he just dominated the finals against me.
“Obviously different conditions are going to be played on Friday. I’m hopefully going to be able to also perform at a higher level than I have, especially in the first two sets in last year’s final.
“The quality and the level of tennis that I’ve been playing in the last three, four weeks on clay – Rome, Belgrade and here – is giving me good sensations and feelings ahead of that match. I’m confident. I believe I can win, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Let’s have a great battle.”
Djokovic’s extraordinary reaction to his late-night victory over Matteo Berrettini on Wednesday, screaming at the top of his voice towards his support camp in a release of pent-up tension, showed again just what these tournaments mean to him.
Victory over Nadal and in the final on Sunday would see him close to within one title of the Spaniard and Roger Federer at the top of the all-time men’s grand slam standings and also see him become the first of the trio to win each tournament at least twice.
“It’s not like any other match,” said Djokovic. “Let’s face it, it’s the biggest challenge that you can have playing on clay against Nadal on this court in which he has had so much success in his career. In the final stages of a grand slam, it doesn’t get bigger than that.
“Of course, each time we face each other, there’s that extra tension and expectations. Just vibes are different walking on the court with him. But that’s why our rivalry has been historic, I think, for this sport. I’ve been privileged to play him so many times.”
Nadal, chasing a 14th title in Paris and record-breaking 21st slam overall, has been the more impressive of the pair so far, although he did show signs of tension in dropping a set to Diego Schwartzman on Wednesday.
The Spaniard’s response, though, was emphatic, while Djokovic had to come from two sets down against Lorenzo Musetti and then saw his quarter-final against Berrettini become complicated.
Nadal said: “It’s a semi-final. It’s not a final. That’s a big difference. Even the winner of that match needs to keep going and there remains a lot of work to do to try to achieve the final goal here.
“It’s a match that you know what you have to do if you really want to have chances of success and to keep going in the tournament. Always a big challenge. That’s something that is good because, in some way, we are practising, we are living the sport for these moments.”
The first semi-final will pit two of the men trying to usurp Djokovic and Nadal at the top of the game against each other.
Alexander Zverev will be looking to reach his second slam final after losing to Dominic Thiem at last year’s US Open while Stefanos Tsitsipas has been the man in form in 2021 and is bidding to make his first.
The Greek said: “I don’t think there’s a player out there that thinks they can’t win the tournament. Of course I’m playing good, and I think if I keep repeating the process, keep repeating the everyday hustle, for sure there’s going to be a reward.”