TOP seed Novak Djokovic withstood a gutsy fightback from Greek fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas to set up a French Open final against long-time rival Rafael Nadal on Sunday.
Djokovic, 33, missed a match point in the third set before eventually winning 6-3 6-2 5-7 4-6 6-1 at Roland Garros.
The Serb could not take a second match point in what was the final game before cracking a forehand winner to seal it.
Nadal, who is going for a 13th title, beat Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman.
The top two seeds in the men’s draw will face each other for the 56th time in their careers – no two men have played each other more – and the ninth time in a Grand Slam final.
The match could also be pivotal in the long-running battle between Djokovic, Nadal and Swiss rival Roger Federer in determining which man finishes with the most Grand Slam titles.
If Nadal lifts the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy yet again, it will see him equal Federer’s all-time leading record of 20 men’s majors.
Djokovic, whose only triumph at Roland Garros came in 2016, knows a victory will move him to 18 – within one more of Nadal and two adrift of 39-year-old Federer.
“I’m not feeling exhausted physically so much after the match,” said Djokovic, whose victory in three hours and 54 minutes was only 45 minutes longer than Nadal’s semi-final.
“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.”
Nadal and Djokovic last met at the ATP Cup in January, when the Serb won to take his lead in their head-to-head record to 29-26
While Nadal has the unparalleled history at Roland Garros, there is justification in suggesting Djokovic has the superior form going into Sunday’s final.
Even though Djokovic has dropped three sets over the fortnight in Paris – unlike Nadal, who has not dropped any – he has regularly played at a high level which even the Spaniard would struggle to contain.
The manner of Nadal’s wins have not been quite as impressive, while Djokovic has overcome tougher opponents in Russian 15th seed Karen Khachanov, Spanish 17th seed Pablo Carreno Busta and now Tsitsipas.
In addition, Djokovic has the benefit of the extra momentum he has garnered over the past couple of months.
Djokovic has won all 37 of his completed matches in 2020, with his only loss coming when he was defaulted from that infamous US Open fourth-round match against Carreno Busta.
Nadal did not go to New York because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and has only played nine matches since March as a result.
Crucially, there seems to be an extra sharpness and steeliness in Djokovic’s game.
Even though he was not as clinical against Tsitsipas as it seemed he would be, the way in which he remained composed to check the Greek’s fightback and win the decider adds further weight to the thought he will win a second French Open title on Sunday.
Afterwards, Tsitsipas said he thought Djokovic has “reached almost perfection”.
Another worry for Nadal fans might be the way Djokovic swatted the Spaniard aside in the 2019 Australian Open final – in similar circumstances to this tournament.
Nadal had not dropped a set on his way to that final but, like now, went into the tournament without much competitive action and ended up being nowhere near the level required to cause problems for an in-form Djokovic.
Despite all of that, few would be keen to write off Nadal at the place where he has only lost twice in 15 years.
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