Djokovic’s Best Shot at Nadal in Paris: When Clay Isn’t Clay

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PARIS—Novak Djokovic’s season of the pandemic could have easily been defined by the June night he spent partying in a Belgrade nightclub, which he followed with a positive test for the coronavirus. Or it could have been dominated by the September evening when he left the U.S. Open in disgrace, after a single act of petulance.

Both were colossal mistakes, Djokovic admitted. Yet somehow, neither has slowed him down. Djokovic’s wild year has included some of the biggest gaffes of his career and more apologies than he has cared to make. But the most unusual part by far will come on Sunday, when Djokovic has the chance of his life to unseat the greatest player the French Open has ever known, Rafael Nadal.

“Here, he’s obviously the favorite,” Djokovic said in French after defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals. “This is his house.”

Except Nadal’s October houseguests are finding the place substantially changed from their regular visits in the spring. In a season when nothing has gone as planned and sports don’t look like themselves, Djokovic’s opportunity exists for one simple reason: the Roland-Garros clay isn’t quite the Roland-Garros clay.

While the red dirt itself hasn’t changed, everything around it has. With the French Open played in October for the first time, players have discovered that there is, in fact, nothing romantic about Paris in the rain.

“The problem is the weather,” Nadal, a 12-time champion, said after a quarterfinal victory that finished after 1 a.m. “It’s too cold to play. Honestly, it’s very, very cold to play tennis, no?”

What had been Nadal’s paradise of speed from the baseline and dizzying topspin is now a world in slow-motion to him. In the cold and damp, the ball doesn’t fizz the way he likes it to, nor does it bounce as high. It’s no surprise that the signature move of Roland-Garros in 2020 has become a feather-touch drop shot.

“The playing conditions are not perfect for me,” Nadal said in Spanish. “My contact with the ball is not perfect.”

No one is better positioned to take advantage of that than Djokovic. He is one of only two players ever to beat Nadal here, and the most recent. That victory came in the 2015 quarters, before Djokovic ultimately lost the final to Stan Wawrinka. The recent head-to-head between Djokovic and Nadal also favors Djokovic, who has won 14 of their past 18 meetings, including four on clay.

Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal at Roland-Garros in the 2015 French Open quarterfinals.



Photo:

kenzo tribouillard/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

And this year—off-court blunders and global pandemic aside—Djokovic is having a season for the ages. He’s 37-1 in 2020, giving him the highest winning percentage of his career, according to the statistics website Tennis Abstract. He dropped just three sets on his way to winning the Australian Open, in the before times, and hardly lost a step during his six months off.

There was the ill-fated Adria Tour, the summer exhibition series in the Balkans where Djokovic and three other top male players learned the hard way that the coronavirus was highly contagious. But he just kept dominating once real tournaments resumed. The only thing that stopped Djokovic at the U.S. Open was Djokovic—he was disqualified after angrily whacking a tennis ball that struck a line judge in the throat.

He had momentary visions of it happening again here after a ball ricocheted off his racket and found its way to the side of a line judge’s head. Djokovic immediately apologized for the accident.

“My gosh,” he said. “It was a very awkward déjà vu.”

If Djokovic’s long road through the pandemic to the final in Paris has seemed especially chaotic, Nadal’s has been the opposite. Once global tennis shut down, he hunkered down in Mallorca for the better part of six months. He didn’t even leave to defend his title at the U.S. Open. Nadal instead stuck to clay courts and returned to the circuit at the Rome Masters last month for a French Open tuneup.

The three matches he played there were his only competitive outings since February and he lost in the quarterfinals to Diego Schwartzman. Facing Schwartzman again on Friday, the first warm, sunny day of the tournament, Nadal looked more in control and brushed him aside in three sets.

Djokovic, in the form of his life, will present a stiffer test. He has managed to play more tennis over this staccato season than all but two men on the circuit. He’s adjusted his game to the autumn conditions here. And on Friday night, battling through four hours and five sets against Tsitsipas, he reminded the world that he remains the most effective grinder in tennis.

Novak Djokovic celebrates after beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the French Open semifinals.



Photo:

Aurelien Morissard/Zuma Press

Djokovic has faced Nadal in eight previous Grand Slam finals, with the series tied at four across every surface. But on the clay in Paris, he only needs a repeat of a single match five years ago to cap the most 2020 season imaginable.

“Different circumstances. Different kind of tournament. And a different situation, no?” Nadal said. “I will let you know on Sunday.”

Write to Joshua Robinson at joshua.robinson@wsj.com

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