How to watch: 9 a.m. Eastern on NBC; streaming on the NBC and NBC Sports apps.
Rafael Nadal, a 12-time French Open champion, has never lost a final at Roland Garros and has never been pushed past four sets. In this year’s tournament, Nadal has once again dominated on his favored surface, red clay, and has yet to drop a set in any match.
Novak Djokovic, the top seed and a 17-time Grand Slam singles champion, is on a quest to win each of the four Grand Slam events for a second time.
It is important to bring up the other member of the Big Three of men’s tennis, Roger Federer, who is recovering from knee surgery and did not play in this year’s French Open or the United States Open. Federer holds 20 Grand Slam men’s singles titles, and both Nadal and Djokovic are on his heels. Nadal could secure his 20th major title on Sunday, tying that record, while Djokovic could win his 18th.
Djokovic and Nadal are two generational talents whose styles of play have helped define the modern game. Djokovic’s defensive style of play is emulated by many top professionals who are looking to follow the Big Three.
On the other hand, it is hard to name anyone who emulates Nadal’s powerful, aggressive topspin shot making, possibly because there is no one who can. Nadal can use his style to bludgeon players who allow him to step inside the baseline, or as a defense, looping high balls into the far corners of the court if he needs to change the momentum of a point.
This will be the 56th meeting between the two legends, and it is still unclear just how much longer they will be able to maintain their status at the top of the men’s game.
That lack of clarity about the future only adds to the grandeur of this match.
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Djokovic has beaten Nadal more often, but Nadal has an edge on this surface.
Djokovic and Nadal have the most prolific rivalry in the history of men’s professional tennis, with the French Open final serving as their 56th career meeting.
Djokovic, who has won 29 of their previous 55 matches, has also won 14 of the last 18. That includes their last Grand Slam final, in which he dominated Nadal, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, in last year’s Australian Open final. The match lasted just over two hours.
Nadal, however, has won the last three matches the two have played on clay, most recently in the Rome final last year, and 17 of 24 clay matches over all.
Nadal has won six of their seven matches at the French Open, including the finals in 2012 and 2014. However, it will be fresh in his mind that his last defeat at Roland Garros, way back in the 2015 quarterfinals, came at the hands of Djokovic.
Experts are divided on this match: oddsmakers have Nadal as a slight favorite, while the analytics website Tennis Abstract puts Djokovic’s odds of winning at 54 percent.
Nadal, nicknamed the King of Clay, could win his 100th French Open match.
Nadal, the long-reigning King of Clay, arrives at the French Open final on Sunday with a 99-2 record at Roland Garros and a chance to hit some big round numbers with a 100th win at the tournament and a 20th Grand Slam title.
Nadal had less tournament preparation for this event than ever before, however. After skipping the United States Open, Nadal lost in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open in Rome, which was his only warm-up event on clay and the only event he had played since winning a title in Acapulco, Mexico, in late February — just before the tour ground to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The conditions in Paris this year were considered unfavorable for Nadal, with the cold air causing the ball to bounce lower, tempering some of his heavy topspin compared with how the ball would leap if the tournament were held in June as usual. But his results seem to be unaffected: He has not dropped a set in his first six matches.
This final plays right into the Greatest of All Time debate.
Much as last year’s Wimbledon final between Djokovic and Federer was, this could be a crucial match in determining who finishes with the men’s record for Grand Slam singles titles.
Federer, 39, who has not played since January and has undergone two knee operations, holds the lead with 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal, who sits at 19, can tie that record with his 13th French Open title on Sunday. And Djokovic, who has won 17, can pull within one of Nadal with a win on Sunday. Djokovic would also become the first man in the Open era to have won each of the Grand Slam events twice.
A question for Federer and his fans to ponder on Sunday: Which potential champion more jeopardizes Federer’s ultimate standing when all is said and done?
Usually held in late May and early June with tens of thousands of fans in attendance each day, the French Open made the aggressive move in mid-March to reschedule to late September and early October, unilaterally claiming a spot on the tennis calendar without consulting other tennis governing bodies.
The bold move has paid off, as the tournament was able to proceed, but not at full strength. Organizers initially hoped to have as many as 11,500 paying fans in attendance each day, but public health protocols eventually slashed that number to 1,000.
Matches at Roland Garros have had more atmosphere than those at the U.S. Open, which was completely closed off to paying spectators, but there are still more than 10,000 seats sitting empty inside Philippe Chatrier Court.
The fans inside the arena have worn masks during the matches, though they are usually clumped together in the prime seats, rather than taking advantage of the considerable elbow room available elsewhere. Pandemic protocols in Paris have tightened during the tournament, including closures of cafes and restaurants, but the tournament has played on.
The men’s tennis tour will return to Paris later this month for the Paris Indoors Masters event, which begins on Oct. 31.