PARIS/WASHINGTON, June 13, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)
What began a fortnight ago with 128 players – including the Big Three of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer all in the upper half of the draw – the French Open has come down to the final two: Djokovic and first-time major finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas. Djokovic leads their career head-to-head 5-2, including 3-0 on clay.
After a couple of emotional, nerve-wracking semifinal matches that arguably redefined the careers of both World No. 1 and top seed Djokovic and rising Greek star Tsitsipas, what can either possibly do to outdo what they did on Friday?
🇬🇷Stefanos Tsitsipas vs Novak Djokovic🇷🇸
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 11, 2021
Consider this: the 18-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic from Serbia ended the Roland-Garros reign of 13-time French Open champion Nadal, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2, in four hours and 11 minutes of gut-wrenching tennis for just the Spaniard’s third defeat in 108 career matches at Stade Roland Garros. That came after Tsitsipas battled for three hours and 37 minutes and out-fought Alexander Zverev of Germany over five sets to win 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3.
“Each time you step on the court with [Rafa], you know that you have to kind of climb Mount Everest to win against this guy here,” Djokovic, 34, said Friday night. “I won only once in our eight matches that we ever played in Chatrier here in Roland-Garros. I tried to take some positives and some cues from that match in 2015 that I won against him to implement tonight, which worked out very nicely.
“It’s just one of these matches that I really will remember for a very long time.”
“Definitely the best match that I was ever part of [at] #RolandGarros, and top three matches that I’ve ever played in my entire career… each time you step on the court with him, you know that you have to climb Mount Everest to win.@DjokerNole 👏 pic.twitter.com/sIMCuZei1l
— ATP Tour (@atptour) June 12, 2021
As for the 22-year-old Tsitsipas from Greece, the French Open is the culmination of what has been an outstanding European clay season. He won titles at Monte-Carlo and Lyon and was a finalist at Barcelona. After Tsitsipas beat Zverev for his ATP Tour-leading 39th victory – including 22 on clay – the emotion of the moment caught up to him during his on-court interview.
“All I can think of is my roots,” Tsitsipas said, his eyes tearing up. “I come from a really small place outside of Athens. My dream was to play here and I would never have thought I would achieve it. …
“It was nervous-wracking, so intense, I stayed alive. I went out there and fought. This win means a lot, it’s the most important one of my career so far.”
“I’m looking forward to leaving my entire body on the court in the final. It’s time for me to show that I’m capable.”
— ATP Tour (@atptour) June 12, 2021
At stake on Sunday afternoon is this: A triumph by Djokovic would give him 19 Grand Slam titles and make him the first man in the Open Era of tennis (since 1968) – and only the third in history – to win every major title twice. The others who have accomplished this feat are Hall of Famers Roy Emerson and Rod Laver, both from Australia. For Tsitsipas, the youngest Roland-Garros men’s finalist since Nadal in 2008, he’s also the first Greek to reach a major final. Tsitsipas will reach a new career-high of No. 4 on Monday just for reaching the title match. If he wins, he’ll become the new World No. 3.
Can Tsitsipas win it all? Anything’s possible. “I’ve never believed, have never really thought at what age that achievement might come, but I’m really happy with myself,” he said Friday during his press conference. “I think I’ve shown good discipline so far. I’ve been progressive.
“I’m looking forward to leaving my entire body on the court.”