Two forces of nature will collide on Sunday in the French Open final, and something will have to give.
It will be Rafael Nadal, the man who barely ever loses at Roland Garros, against Novak Djokovic, the man who only ever loses against himself.
And behind it all will be the over-arching contest to see who can one day claim to be the greatest player of all time. A win for Nadal puts him level with Roger Federer on twenty Grand Slam titles, while defeat would mean Djokovic climbing up to eighteen.
Novak Djokovic took a step closer to his 18th Grand Slam as he reached the French Open final
He faces a purring Rafael Nadal, a man who has never lost a final in 12 efforts at Roland Garros
Djokovic only made it after being given an almighty scare by Stefanos Tsitsipas, who saved a match point in the third set to force it the distance before losing 6-3 6-2 5-7 4-6 6-1 in three hours and 54 minutes.
It provided some of the best tennis seen all year before he ran out of legs towards the end against an opponent who stayed admirably unflustered in the face of a quality assault, which saw him broken three straight times in the middle of the match.
‘I looked calm on the outside but I wasn’t inside,’ said Djokovic. ‘Mentally I stayed there after the third set. Rafa is the favourite for the final, this is his house.’
How much the Greek has taken out of him remains to be seen.
Djokovic was given the more extensive semi-final workout in a five-set thriller on Friday night
The 34-year-old Spaniard is a master of bringing himself to the boil at just the right time in the Majors, and he looked like he was peaking perfectly in subduing the challenge of Diego Schwartzmann, beating him 6-3 6-3 7-6.
Equalling Federer is finally within sight for both men, and with the 39 year-old Swiss sitting out the season with injury Nadal has reached the final without having lost a set for the sixth time. Federer probably would have felt helpless anyway, as his days of hoping the win Paris are gone.
For Djokovic victory would represent the second time in his career when he has held all four Majors at once, but he denied this would be the biggest match of his life.
‘Any French Open final is the biggest match because it is the one I have won the least,’ he said. ‘Rafa is my biggest rival, we have played so many great matches. I don’t think the past will have much effect. Playing him here is the biggest challenge you can have in the sport. I have been there, and I know what to do.’
Both men are looking to close the gap on Roger Federer, who has 20 Grand Slams to his name
Nadal was reluctant to be drawn on the significance of the race: ‘I live my reality,’ he said. ‘When we finish we talk about that. For me what matters at the moment is that I will play the final of the most important tournament of the year for me.’
Given his extraordinary record on the Philippe Chatrier Stadium it takes someone brave to wager against Nadal. But this is autumn rather than late Spring, and less purchase on his shots in the slower conditions means gaining a 100th match win in Paris will not be straightforward.
He began the French Open by complaining the about the size of the balls being used and fretting over the likely weather conditions. They have not thrown him off.
This is what Nadal has been aiming for, long before that pre-tournament press conference when, not for the first time, he tried to dampen down expectations.
Nadal played down expectations before the tournament began but looks back to his best now
Stopping the Spaniard, and current world No 2, on clay is one of sport’s toughest assignments
Winning Roland Garros for an astonishing thirteenth time – he has never lost in the final – is what he has been shooting towards ever since he announced the decision to skip the US Open on August 4.
The journey this time was not always smooth, especially when there has been an Italian connection.
It was Schwartzmann who beat him in Rome at the Italian Open in the build-up to this fortnight. Then it was Italian teenager Jannik Sinner who caused him discomfort in Tuesday’s quarter final.
As he pointed out, this was not the same as when he met the Argentinian earlier in the month: ‘ I think I am little bit more prepared here, no? Rome was my first event after six months, and Diego was the first challenge. It’s important to go through all the process. You have to suffer. You can’t pretend to be in a final of Roland Garros without suffering.’
Djokovic will need to do something no previous Roland Garros finalist has managed vs Nadal