Stefanos Tsitsipas plays in his first Grand Slam final of his career. Novak Djokovic fights for his 19th slam title. Much is at stake for both players who will compete against each other in the men’s individual final of the French Open on Sunday.
Djokovic has had one of the best matches of his storied career after wearing down the King of Clay. Rafael Nadal, in an epic four-set semi-final. It took Tsitsipas five sentences to come by Alexander Zverev and lock his place.
Which player has the edge? Our tennis gurus will give you a preview of the game.
Given the physical strain Djokovic and Tsitsipas were exposed to in their semi-finals, how much of a role will fatigue play?
Simon Cambers: It only becomes a factor when the finale itself is really long. Djokovic looked strong at the end of his match against Nadal and I don’t remember losing a match to being tired. Maybe 22-year-old Tsitsipas could feel it when it goes five.
Bill Connelly: Both players would certainly have to be excused if they were a bit clumsy, but Djokovic’s fitness level remains nearly unchallenged and Tsitsipas’ approach will likely be to keep the scores short overall. There is reason to hope for a clean, crisp game.
D’Arcy Maine: The mental hurdle could be more of a challenge. Djokovic is no stranger to playing in big games in his career, but Friday wasn’t your typical semi-final. To have won such an epic battle against the most famous rivals delivers the ultimate emotional high. Stepping out of it and focusing on another game could be difficult. Djokovic compared defeating Nadal on clay with climbing Mount Everest. It might be a fair comparison, but no climber goes up Kilimanjaro two days later.
Tsitsipas described his semi-final match against Zverev as “full of emotions” and “exhausting” as he dug deep into the track after losing his early two-set lead. He won’t have to think about what it means to play in his first grand final and that could be a challenge.
Tsitsipas’ two career wins against Djokovic were achieved on hard courts. What does he have to do to defeat Djokovic on clay this time?
Fall: Tsitsipas has to play his best match ever. He needs to serve well, collect some free points to relieve the pressure, and move Djokovic around (like Lorenzo Musetti in the fourth round) and pull him out of his comfort zone. If he can go as far as he can, it will help.
Connelly: For starters, close the deal when you get the chance. In Rome last month, Tsitsipas took the first set and led through breaks in the second and third, but fell. If you’re aiming for a slam breakthrough, “Close out Novak Djokovic” is the final task on the final level of the video game. Tsitsipas doesn’t seem to relax until his back is against the wall, but if he’s ready for that moment, he’s more than good enough to do it.
Maine: Tsitsipas pushed Djokovic to five sets in the 2020 French Open semi-finals after facing the match point in the third set. He knows he’s capable of marginalizing the world’s No. 1 on sand, and he’s only gotten better since that encounter in October. Tsitsipas was most successful in the match when he was aggressive and dictated the game and advanced all the way to the net. He has to do that again on Sunday, but this time from the beginning. Perhaps most importantly, like most of the tournament, he needs to stay calm.
What are the shots of the players seen?
Fall: Djokovic’s return was stunning against Nadal and will be a key factor against Tsitsipas. The depth it gets puts so much pressure on the server all the time. For Tsitsipas, he needs to get the ball on the forehand as far as possible to stop Djokovic’s dominance.
Connelly: For Djokovic, it’s the forehand. It was absurdly good against Nadal, and when he dials in on this side it’s almost impossible to overtake him in rallies. He already has one of the most dangerous backhands in the game and the best return. If he also nailed the forehand, what is left?
When Tsitsipas’s serve is good, he’s as good as anyone outside of John Isner and maybe Roger Federer. It has allowed him to be successful against Djokovic – he has actually won twice against the world number one on hard courts and his last two encounters on clay were over the distance. However, Djokovic forced him into trouble at key moments. Tsitsipas’ serve has to come out big across the board.
Maine: Let’s make it easy for ourselves here – one great serve could make all the difference for both players.
Djokovic said his serve was not a “great weapon” during his game against Nadal, but he was definitely effective when he needed it. In the crucial fourth set he lost just eight points on serve and gained 80% of the points on first serve. That could be crucial on Sunday when he hits that serving dominance early in the game. Tsitsipas also finished his win against Zverev with an incredibly strong service performance in the fifth set, with three aces and 83% of the first serve points won.
No doubt Rafa is still the King of Clay, but how much does Djokovic’s second win over Nadal at Roland Garros add to the GOAT debate?
Fall: The match alone won’t really affect that argument, but the fact that it gives Djokovic the chance to win Slam # 19 – and take every major title twice – does. It would also get him halfway to the Grand Slam of the calendar year. If he does, he will have 21 career slams against his own past Nadal and Roger Federer.
Connelly: He’s the only player who beat Nadal twice at Roland Garros and now has the chance to win a career double slam. Given how well he has played on grass and hard courts so far, it has to be assumed that his chances of retiring with most career slams are very high if he can close the deal. People will argue forever between Djokovic, Nadal and Federer in the GOAT debate, no matter how it all ends, but obviously if he can claim the scoreboard his case is very good.
Maine: Djokovic, who is likely to be the favorite at Wimbledon and the US Open, now has a legitimate chance of winning three more big titles this year. For those scoring at home, if he were to succeed, he would jump past Nadal and Roger Federer to the top of most slam wins. And at 34 he will still be in his prime; If he hasn’t been able to hit the mark this year, it’s almost inevitable that sooner or later he’ll get there. It will be hard to argue the GOAT claim with these numbers.
Forecast time: Tsitsipas or Djokovic?
Fall: After beating Nadal, it is very difficult to imagine Djokovic falling flat in the final. He’s been there before, knows what matters and will be almost impossible to beat, even though Tsitsipas played so well. Djokovic in straight sentences.
Connelly: I have become a Tsitsipas believer and I think he has a legitimate chance here. But considering how good Djokovic was against Nadal, I can’t decide against him. Djokovic in four.
Maine: Djokovic played what he called the best clay court game of his career on Friday, but the emotional hangover after such an epic win will be too much for even someone as mentally strong as Djokovic to overcome in just 48 hours . Tsitsipas hits the moment and wins his first Grand Slam title in another exciting five-setter. Not me.