Kolkata: Like in life, sport doesn’t often make way for fairytale endings. A Serena Williams is made to wait for more than four years to overtake Margaret Court’s record of 23 singles grand slam titles while a Rafa Nadal is left stranded at the same number of grand slam titles as Roger Federer – 20.
Nadal, who could have become the oldest finalist at French Open at 35 if he won the epic semi-final on Friday night, would be surely back next year on his favourite backyard. For now, however, its Novak Djokovic – the 2016 winner with 18 grand slams – who has history beckoning him to be the first in over half a century to win all four majors on multiple occasions.
Standing on his way on Sunday will be Stefanos Tsitsipas, the lanky youngster with a complete game as it can be, who became the first Greek to reach a grand slam final. The French Open clay has proved to be a killing fields for many a reputation, but it looks difficult to look beyond the world No.1 Serb – who was at his grittiest best on Friday – waiting for his chances against arguably the best men’s claycourt player ever.
“You cannot play better clay court tennis than this. It’s perfect,” tweeted an admiring Andy Murray, the former world number one who lost the 2016 final to Djokovic.
The lopsided men’s draw, which meant only one of the ‘Big Three’ of men’s tennis could have been in the final – has perhaps thrown up its best candidate on form to stop the GenNext from producing their first champion on clay in a while.
“It was a privilege to face Rafa in such an incredible match,” said Djokovic after four hours and 11 minutes of intense action. “Tonight it was my greatest ever match in Paris.”
It was his second win in nine meetings at Roland Garros with Nadal, a sequence which also included devastating losses in the 2012, 2014 and 2020 finals.
“Definitely one of the top three matches that I ever played in my entire career,” said Djokovic.
In a spontaneous gesture of appreciation on a dramatic evening, the French Open organisers allowed 5,000-off spectators inside Court Philippe Chatrier to watch the conclusion of the match despite it passing the 11pm Covid-19 curfew. “In agreement with the national authorities, the match will come to an end in your presence,” said a stadium announcer told delighted fans.
Meanwhile, Tsitsipas, who trails 2-5 in a head-to-head record against Djokovic also broke a mental barrier in making his first grand slam final. The 22-year-old had lost all of his previous three semi-finals at the slams – at the 2019 and 2021 Australian Open as well as Roland Garros last year in five sets to Djokovic. It was at the end of a bruising five-setter, which had very little to choose between him and German Alexander Zverev, that the Dubai Duty Free Championships regular could have the last laugh.
“All I can think of is my roots, a small place outside Athens where I dreamed to play on the big stage at the French Open,” a tearful Tsitsipas said on making the final. “It was nerve-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.”
“It was just exhausting. I’m proud of myself. I’m grateful for every single match that I get to play. I’m obviously just blessed to have the opportunity to play against the best and test myself.”
Can the final live up to the scene-setter that the two gruelling semis-finals provided? We will know on Sunday.