French Open nears familiar territory of a Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic final
The Spaniard Rafael Nadal celebrates after beating the Italian Jannik Sinner at the end of his men's quarter-final tennis match - AFP
Wintry winds, empty stalls, late end. From the moment Victoria Azarenka stormed into court on the first morning and claimed, "I live in Florida, I'm used to hot weather," these French Open were radically different from the norm.
Now, however, bookies believe the showpiece will bring us back to more familiar territory on Sunday. As the men's final approaches, their chances stand for a 56th record meeting - and 14th at Roland Garros - between the two dominant players of the past decade: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
To get there, these serial champions will have to dodge a few potential ambushers on the street. In the semi-finals on Friday, Stefanos Tsitsipas, world number 6, will face Djokovic for the first time in a major, before Diego Schwartzman - the 28-year-old Argentinian - will repeat his impressive 6-2, 7-5 win over Nadal three weeks ago in Rome .
Under normal circumstances, both matches could be written off as a foregone conclusion. We have been looking for cracks in the glass ceiling of men's tennis for several years just so that the old regime ruthlessly suppresses all challengers.
However, these are not normal circumstances. Even before this event began, Nadal warned that “the conditions here at Roland Garros are probably the most difficult for me”. Now it looks like the final on Sunday could be the first Grand Slam showpiece to be played at 13 degrees.
Nadal's 12 French Open titles are based not only on the dwindling power of his legendary left-handed forehand, but also on the vicious top spin that makes the ball bounce down the throat. On a hot day in May or the beginning of June it is not playable on Court Philippe Chatrier: the Minotaur in its labyrinth. But now, in early October, the cold is dampening his superpowers.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Nadal experienced an uncomfortable role reversal for 19-year-old Jannik Sinner. This time he was the one fighting his opponent's superior firepower. The seemingly straightforward goal line - 7-6, 6-4, 6-1 - hid how close he was to the edge of his nerves.
Schwartzman will be a very different challenge. At 5 feet 7 inches, he's the shortest man to have made a major semi-final here since Harold Solomon 40 years ago. He won't beat up a lot of winners, but he doesn't miss it very often either. And his backhand - the area that Nadal normally targets against most opponents - is as good as impermeable, as the youngest US Open champion Dominic Thiem discovered on Tuesday in a grueling five-hour quarter-finals.
If Schwartzman has a puncher chance, Tsitsipas’s prospects are harder to gauge. Djokovic said he had "some neck problems and some shoulder problems" in his own quarter-final win on Wednesday night. But Pablo Carreno Busta, his victim in this match, was skeptical. "Every time the game gets complicated," said Carreno Busta, "he seeks medical help."
Perhaps there was something prophetic in Nadal's pre-tournament warnings regarding the combination of new Wilson balls - slightly larger than the old Babolats - and cold temperatures. As he put it, "When the ball is super heavy, it becomes dangerous for the elbows and shoulders."
Djokovic's fitness is key. Should those little things return, Tsitsipas' athleticism and well-rounded game should lead him to a first grand final. If not, then Djokovic - the man from the Serbian ski resort Mount Kapaonik - could have created the icy conditions in Paris to find his way to the title.
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