Stefanos Tsitsipas is playing in his first career Grand Slam final. Novak Djokovic is vying for his 19th Slam title. There is plenty on the line for both players, who will face off in Sunday’s French Open men’s singles final.
Djokovic is coming off one of the best matches of his storied career after wearing down the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, in an epic four-set semifinal clash. Tsitsipas needed five sets to get past Alexander Zverev and lock up his spot.
Which player has the edge? Our tennis gurus preview the match.
Given the physical tests Djokovic and Tsitsipas each faced in their semifinal matches, how much will fatigue be a factor?
Simon Cambers: It will only become a factor if the final itself goes really long. Djokovic looked strong at the end of his match against Nadal, and I don’t remember him ever losing a match because of fatigue. Maybe the 22-year-old Tsitsipas could feel it if it goes five.
Bill Connelly: One would certainly have to excuse both players if they were a little bit heavy-legged, but Djokovic’s fitness levels remain just about unimpeachable, and Tsitsipas’ approach will likely be to keep points short overall. There is reason to hope for a clean, crisp match.
D’Arcy Maine: The mental hurdle might be more of a challenge. Djokovic is no stranger to playing in big matches over his career, but Friday wasn’t a typical semifinal. To have won such an epic match against the most storied of rivals makes for the ultimate emotional high. Coming down from that and focusing on another match could be tricky. Djokovic compared beating Nadal on clay to climbing Mount Everest. It might be a fair comparison, but no climber then immediately goes to climb Mount Kilimanjaro two days later.
Tsitsipas described his semifinal match against Zverev as “full of emotions” and “exhausting,” as he dug deep down the stretch after squandering his early two-set lead. He will need to not think about what it means to be playing in his first major final, and that might be a challenge.
Tsitsipas’ two career victories against Djokovic have come on the hard courts. What does he have to do to beat Djokovic on clay this time around?
Cambers: Tsitsipas has to play his best match ever. He needs to serve well, pick up some free points to relieve the pressure, and move Djokovic around (like Lorenzo Musetti did in the fourth round) and pull him out of his comfort zone. If he can get forward as much as possible, it will help.
Connelly: For starters, close the deal when you get the chance. In Rome last month, Tsitsipas took the first set and led by breaks in the second and third but fell. If you’re aiming for a Slam breakthrough, “Close out Novak Djokovic” is the final task on the final level of the video game. Tsitsipas doesn’t seem to relax until his back is against the wall, but if he is ready for that moment, he’s more than good enough to do it.
Maine: Tsitsipas pushed Djokovic to five sets in the 2020 French Open semifinals after facing match point in the third set. He knows he is capable of pushing the world No. 1 to the brink on clay, and he’s only gotten better since that clash in October. Tsitsipas was most successful in the match when he was aggressive and dictating play and moving up to the net. He’ll need to do that again Sunday, but this time from the start. Perhaps most importantly, he will have to stay composed, as he has for most of this tournament.
What are the players’ shots to watch?
Cambers: The Djokovic return was stunning against Nadal and will be a key factor against Tsitsipas. The depth he gets, consistently, puts the server under so much pressure. For Tsitsipas, he needs to get the ball on his forehand as much as possible to stop Djokovic dominating.
Connelly: For Djokovic, it’s the forehand. It was absurdly good against Nadal, and when he’s dialed in on that side, it’s almost impossible to get on top of him in rallies. He already has one of the most dangerous backhands in the game and has the best return. If he’s nailing the forehand, too, what’s left?
When Tsitsipas’ serve is on, it’s as good as anyone’s outside of John Isner and maybe Roger Federer. It has allowed him to see success against Djokovic — he has indeed won twice against the world No. 1 on hard courts, and their last two meetings on clay went the distance. Djokovic forced him into trouble in key moments, however. Tsitsipas’ serve has to come up big throughout.
Maine: Let’s make this simple here — a great serving day could be the difference for both players.
Djokovic said his serve wasn’t “a big weapon” during his match against Nadal, but it certainly was effective when he needed it to be. In the crucial fourth set, he lost just eight points on serve and won 80% of first-serve points. That could be crucial Sunday if he achieves that level of serve dominance early in the match. Tsitsipas also locked down his win over Zverev with an incredibly strong service performance in the fifth set, with three aces and 83% of first-serve points won.
No doubt Rafa is still the King of Clay, but how much does Djokovic’s second win against Nadal at Roland Garros factor into the GOAT debate?
Cambers: The match alone won’t really affect that argument, but the fact that it gives Djokovic the chance to win Slam No. 19 — and claim every major title twice — does. It would also put him halfway to the calendar-year Grand Slam. If he does that, he will have 21 career Slams, out on his own past Nadal and Roger Federer.
Connelly: He is the only player to beat Nadal twice at Roland Garros and now has a chance to win what amounts to a career double-Slam. Given how well he has played on grass and hard courts to date, you have to figure his odds of retiring with the most career Slams become very high if he can seal the deal. People will forever argue between Djokovic, Nadal and Federer in the GOAT debate no matter how this all finishes, but if he can claim scoreboard, his case is obviously very good.
Maine: Djokovic, who will likely be the favorite at Wimbledon and the US Open, now has a legitimate chance to win three more major titles this year. For those keeping score at home, if he were to succeed, he would leapfrog past Nadal and Roger Federer into the top spot for most Slam victories. And, at 34, he will still very much be in his prime; if he weren’t able to reach the mark this year, it feels almost inevitable he will get there sooner or later. It will be hard to argue the GOAT claim with those numbers.
Prediction time: Tsitsipas or Djokovic?
Cambers: After his win over Nadal, it’s very hard to think Djokovic will fall flat in the final. He’s been there before, knows what it takes and is going to be nigh impossible to beat despite how well Tsitsipas has played. Djokovic in straight sets.
Connelly: I have become a Tsitsipas believer and think he has a legitimate shot here. But given how good Djokovic was against Nadal, I can’t make myself pick against him. Djokovic in four.
Maine: Djokovic played what he called the best clay-court match of his career Friday, but the emotional hangover from such an epic victory will be too much to overcome in just 48 hours, even for someone as mentally tough as Djokovic. Tsitsipas meets the moment and wins his first Grand Slam title in another thrilling five-setter. Don’t @ me.