Men’s tennis woke up with a start on Friday night. The world rankings have been frozen for much of the pandemic, and so has the narrative.
But then, just when we expected Rafael Nadal to waltz away with another French Open title, something changed. Djokovic’s magnificent victory over Nadal has created a new and very different dynamic for the final on Sunday.
One way or another, his meeting with 22-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas will shape the story of the season to come. Should Tsitsipas win, this tournament will be remembered as the moment when the citadel fell. After several false starts, a member of the so-called NextGen will finally have overcome one of the “Big Three” in a meaningful match.
And the long-awaited “changing of the guard” will switch from cliche into established fact. Rather more likely, though, is the prospect of Djokovic scoring back-to-back grand-slam victories and setting up a tilt at one of the few prizes still to evade him: the calendar grand slam. Is it premature to be discussing such things before Djokovic has even secured his second French Open title?
Perhaps, but landing back-to-back majors at the start of the season is a vanishingly rare achievement. Djokovic himself won both the Australian and French Opens in 2016, as part of a four-tournament sequence that began with the previous year’s Wimbledon. Otherwise, there have been only three cases in the Open era: Jim Courier in 1992, Mats Wilander in 1988 and Rod Laver in 1969. Laver was also the last man to complete the quartet in the same year. But that was the age of wooden rackets and travel by steamship. His staccato serve-volley game feels like a different sport to what we saw on Friday night: two perfectly conditioned athletes covering every red granule of Court Philippe Chatrier.
One can only wonder what Tsitsipas was thinking, if indeed he could bear to watch. Part of him probably rejoiced in the sheer effort being expended, which left Djokovic and Nadal so drenched in sweat they could have been standing under a waterfall. At the same time, though, the breathtaking quality of the rallies must have felt intimidating.
There is something supernatural about applying so much control, speed and spin to a two-ounce bundle of rubber and felt. Tsitsipas’s best hope lies in the possibility that Djokovic has peaked too early. The world No 1 did, after all, list this semi-final as one of the “top three matches that I ever played in my entire career”.
By inflicting only Nadal’s third defeat at Roland-Garros in 16 years, Djokovic climbed tennis Everest. Might he not falter at the prospect of scaling another peak so soon? It is possible. But then, few people have made money from betting against Djokovic. Having won his first slam title in 2008, he knows how to handle every eventuality. Remember the Australian Open of 2012? That was the year he spent almost five hours subduing Andy Murray in the semi-final, before a near six-hour victory over Nadal on finals day.
The fire burns bright in this one, as we saw after Djokovic’s quarter-final win over Matteo Berrettini. Having failed to tie up the match in straight sets, and suffered a nasty slip which left him with a bleeding hand, he directed a bug-eyed howl at the coaches in his player’s box.
It sounded like something from a werewolf movie. The problem for Tsitsipas is it is likely to be the same as it was for Nadal. Unless you have a cannon of a serve, every return comes back into the court. Once the rally starts, you are battling uphill against a man with no vulnerabilities. Winning a point is like cracking a fiendish Sudoku puzzle: you keep probing away, seeking any hint of weakness in the hope it leads to something bigger.
This is one reason why Djokovic and Nadal have shared 10 of the past 11 majors – the only exception coming when both missed the later stages of last year’s US Open, and Dominic Thiem won a slightly devalued title without facing either man.
Unless Tsitsipas can loosen that stranglehold today, Djokovic will surely believe that he can go unbeaten through the whole grand-slam season.