Nadal, the world No. 2 from Spain, dropped a set for the first time this year at his favourite tournament as he was pushed hard by Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman before Djokovic followed him into the final four with a 6-2 6-3 6-7 (5-7) 7-5 win over Italy’s Matteo Berrettini.
The pair know each other rather well. Nadal won the most recent of their 57 meetings in the final of the Italian Open just weeks before the clay-court Grand Slam, picking up his 28th win against the world No. 1 from Serbia.
A 29th victory at Roland Garros – a tournament he’s won a record 13 times on Friday – will see him equal Djokovic’s number of wins against him while moving one win away from becoming the outright most successful male player in Grand Slam events, ahead of Roger Federer.
Djokovic, who was beaten in straight sets by Nadal in last year’s final, remains the biggest threat to his great rival on clay and he is one of just two men to beat him on the Parisian clay courts.
Should he beat Nadal and then either Stefanos Tsitsipas or Alexander Zverev in the final, he will become the first man in the Open Era to have won every Grand Slam event two times or more.
Still, given the setting, 13-time French Open champion Nadal remains the overwhelming favourite to reach the final and he gave some insight into the best and worst things about facing the 18-time major winner.
‘Well, best thing is you know that you need to play your best tennis,’ said Nadal after a 6-3 4-6 6-4 6-0 win over Schwartzman. ‘It’s a match that you know what you have to do if you really want to have chances to success and to keep going on the tournament.
‘Always a big challenge. That’s something that is good because in some way we are practising, we are living the sport for these moments. So that’s a good thing.
‘The negative thing, it’s difficult because you play against one of the best players of the history. That’s how it is.’
Nadal added: ‘We know each other well. Everybody knows that in these kind of matches anything can happen. The player who is playing better that day is the player that going to have better chances, no?
Most Grand Slam title wins (ATP)
20 – Roger Federer 20 – Rafael Nadal 18 – Novak Djokovic 14 – Pete Sampras
‘That’s it. But is a semifinals. You know, it’s not a final. That’s a big difference. Even the winner of that match needs to keep going and remain a lot of work to do to try to achieve the final goal here.
‘Well, let’s see. I just can do what’s in my hands, no? What’s in my hands is to be ready to play at my highest level on Friday. That’s the goal.’
Remarkably, Nadal can equal Pete Sampras’s total number of Grand Slam wins at the French Open alone should he go on to win title No. 14.
Put to him that the toughest challenge in sporting history is facing him at Roland Garros, Nadal replied: ‘I am not the one to talk about myself, no? I don’t like. I really don’t think that I am the person that I need to talk about myself in this way at all.
‘I mean, of course, as I said before, I can’t avoid that I had great numbers here in Roland Garros. I mean, a lot of great sports people, women, men, did amazing things in the world of sport in the history, no?
‘I mean, just that commentators think about me on that way is something that I am proud of it, it’s an honor for me. As I said, just thanks for the comments. I can’t give you an answer on that.
‘Sorry. I don’t want to have an opinion because I don’t really have it. I don’t have all the statistics to have a clear opinion.’
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