The Philippe Chatrier Court at Roland Garros has long been Rafael Nadal’s second home.
He has won 14 French Open men’s singles titles. His record at Roland Garros is 112-3, and a silver statue of him sits on the grounds.
So maybe it’s fitting that Novak Djokovic has a chance for a career-crowning moment on Sunday — a 23rd grand slam singles title, one more than Nadal — on the very court where his rival has dominated this generation.
If Djokovic, the 36-year-old Serbian champion, can pull that off — and he will be a heavy favourite to do so against Casper Ruud of Norway — it will be the tennis equivalent of Djokovic barging into Nadal’s house, raiding his refrigerator and plopping down on his living room couch to watch a Godfather marathon.
“There is history on the line,” Djokovic said after his four-set win over Carlos Alcaraz, the world No. 1, on Friday. “I like the feeling.”
In Ruud — who dominated Alexander Zverev, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 — Djokovic will face someone who has made three of the last five Grand Slam finals but who lost in his previous two finals. Ruud has yet to take a set from Djokovic across four head-to-head matches, which puts Djokovic in prime position to eclipse Nadal.
Whether tennis fans outside Serbia like it or not, Djokovic has been managing this sort of feat for the better part of 15 years, and he shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. It started when he transformed elite tennis into a three-way battle for supremacy from its previous existence as a binary rivalry/love fest between Nadal and Roger Federer. With a win on Sunday, Djokovic would be the only player among that trio with at least three singles championships at each grand slam.
Two years ago, he became the only man to beat Nadal twice at the French Open. The Federer faithful have long clung to the notion that their man will always be the ruler of the sport’s most hallowed ground: Centre Court at Wimbledon. Djokovic won his seventh Wimbledon singles championship last year and can draw even with Federer next month at the All England club.
On Friday afternoon at Roland Garros, he was up to his old tricks once more against Alcaraz, the 20-year-old Spaniard and top seed who was looking to move one step closer to completing his takeover of the sport.
The match had figured to be one for the ages, a clash of generations and a potential torch-passing — or really a torch-seizing — moment for the sport.
Instead, Djokovic scored a victory for the old guard, registering a kind of technical knockout against a cramping Alcaraz. Djokovic prevailed in four sets, 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1, as Alcaraz crumbled in the face of the magnitude of the moment.
It was a victory of wisdom and experience on a day when Alcaraz, in a moment of raw frankness, said he had been overcome by the idea of facing Djokovic on this giant stage. The cramps had nothing to do with fatigue or nutrition, he said. They were all about the stress of playing in just his second grand slam semi-final, against someone playing in his 45th.
Alcaraz started the match as nervous as he had ever been, he said, and the tension built from there into something he had never felt on a tennis court before. “It’s a combination of a lot of things,” Alcaraz said of the cramps after the match. “The main thing, it was the tension.”
Djokovic said he could easily relate to what Alcaraz had experienced.
Early in his career, in the late rounds of the biggest tournaments, sometimes with championships on the line, his body failed him, for no other reason than the stress of what was unfolding around him.
“It’s a part of the learning curve,” he said.
Alcaraz said he had felt cramps before, but nothing like this. His right arm tightened in the first set, and by the third set the cramps had spread throughout his body. He knew exactly why.
“If someone says that he gets into the court with no nerves playing against Novak, he lies,” Alcaraz said. “Playing a semi-final of a grand slam, you have a lot of nerves, but even more with facing Novak.” The next time he plays Djokovic might be different, he said, “but the nerves will be there”.
Sunday will be Djokovic’s 34th grand slam singles final. Not long ago, one might have guessed he would be facing Nadal on the other side of the net. But Nadal pulled out of this tournament with hip and leg injuries, leaving a grand stage for Djokovic.
With Alcaraz out of the way, and with few expecting Ruud to be a tougher challenge, the pressure will fall squarely on Djokovic. That is exactly how he likes it.
“I’m very happy to be in this position to write history of this sport, but I’m just thinking about winning the next match,” Djokovic said.
Usually, he does.
New York Times News Service
Novak Djokovic (3) vs Casper Ruud (4), 6.30pm IST, live on Sony Sports Network