Like Ali-Frazier or Navratilova vs. Evert or Prost-Senna or Nicklaus vs. Palmer, the rivalry between the Spaniard and the Serb is unparalleled. Well, okay, there’s Rafa and Roger but they’ve played “only” 40 times.
Rafa and Novak are meeting for the 56th time when they collide today to contest the French Open final.
Head to head, it’s Novak who leads 29-26 and 15-11 in the finals. He’s the world No. 1. This year, Novak is also “undefeated.” If not for the recent US Open embarrassment when he was defaulted, he’s won 37 of 37 matches this 2020.
Advantage, Novak, right? Wrong. Because on clay, Rafa leads 17-7 and, on the Roland Garros clay court, he has a 6-1 advantage. Rafa has reached the RG finals 12 times and has never lost (he’s a combined 25-0 in semis and finals). Of those 12 Finals, he won 36 sets and lost only 7 sets. This year, he has won all 15 sets that he’s played.
Advantage, Rafa, right? Wrong. Because here’s the truth: having watched these two duel and spar the past 14 years (they first met in Roland Garros in 2006), they are dead even.
“He’s definitely my greatest rival,” said Djokovic. “Playing him in so many great matches, the past will have some effect in terms of respect towards each other and motivation to get out there and play your best.”
For Rafa, it’s obvious that against no other player is he more startled and anxious than Novak. Consider the Spaniard’s left-handed cross-court topsin forehand. Against every other player, when that high bouncing, side-spinning shot careens to the opponent’s backhand, it’s a missile. Not against Novak, whose backhand is arguably one of history’s best. Novak can pummel it back cross-court or wallop it down-the line. Or he can throw a featherly drop shot.
“The only thing I know is to play against Novak, I need to play my best,” said Rafa. “Without playing my best tennis, (the) situation is very difficult. I know that it’s a court that I have been playing well on for such a long time, so that helps. But at the same time, he has an amazing record here too. (He’s) one of the toughest opponents possible.”
Another area of strength for Rafa is his mental strength. But this, too, is an asset of Novak. They both enjoy grinding and wrestling. In every altercation between the duo, they brawl like prize-fighters. Their dispute mimics boxing. One smashes and the other flings a two-fisted winner. Sweat drenches their Nike and Lacoste tennis shirts.
History looms large today. If Novak wins, he’ll own 18 major trophies — against the 19 of Rafa. If Rafa wins, he’ll do a “20-20.” A 20th major this 2020 to tie Federer’s 20. Also, if the 34-year-old Rafa wins, he’ll notch his 100th French Open victory.
“It’s his ‘maison,’” Novak said of Rafa, using the French term for house. “I will have to be at my best. Playing Nadal at Roland Garros is the biggest challenge in our sport.”
If you have cable TV, watch this “King of Clay” final tonight at 9 p.m. (Phil. time) on Fox Sports. Espero que gane Rafa. Vamos!