Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal: World no1 wary of ‘biggest challenge in tennis’ in French Open semi-final

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Only two men have ever beaten Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, and one will be staring across him from the other side of the net in tomorrow’s semi-final.

Nadal’s record at the French Open is one of the most astonishingly dominant in any sport, 105 wins to just two defeats: to Robin Soderling in 2009 and subsequently Novak Djokovic six years ago.

For all Djokovic’s brilliance in winning 18 Grand Slams, he steps on court with the relative novelty of being the clear underdog, an assessment he made no attempt to shy away from even after beating Matteo Berrettini in four sets to reach the last four last night.

“Let’s face it, it’s the biggest challenge that you can have,” said the world No1, “playing on clay against Nadal on this court in which he has had so much success in his career.

“In the final stages of a Grand Slam, it doesn’t get bigger than that. It’s not like any other match. Of course, each time we face each other there’s that extra tension and expectations. Just vibes are different walking on the court with him. But that’s why our rivalry has been historic I think for this sport.”

Quite who ends up with the most Grand Slam titles between Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer at their career ends remains to be seen but, to date, the rivalry between Djokovic and Nadal has been the most evenly poised among that triumvirate.

Tomorrow will be their 58th time on court together, with Nadal favoured to level things at 29 wins apiece in his quest for a 14th French Open title.

And Djokovic makes no secret of the fact it is a rivalry that has defined him. “I’ve been privileged to play him so many times,” he said. “Rivalries with him and Roger have made me a stronger player, allowed me to understand how I need to improve my game to get to the level where they were actually when I started playing professional tennis.

“But I’ll probably pick Rafa as the biggest rival I’ve ever had in my career. The anticipation for the match against him, any match, any surface, any occasion, is always different from any other.”

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