PARIS: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal meet for the 35th time on Friday with a French Open finals place at stake as well as their reputations as the two heavyweights of the sport.
World No. 1 Djokovic needs a Roland Garros title to become just the eighth man to capture a career Grand Slam.
Nadal, meanwhile, is just two matches away from becoming the first man in history to win the same major on eight occasions.
It’s the match-up that most neutrals would have hoped to have graced Sunday’s final, but Nadal’s seven-month absence from the sport contributed to his number three seeding in Paris and hence a blockbuster semifinals collision beckons.
The 27-year-old Spaniard enjoys a 19-15 winning record over his Serb rival and, possibly crucially, a 12-3 edge on clay.
Furthermore, seven-time champion Nadal, who beat Djokovic in the finals last year, defends a staggering record in Paris of 57 wins in 58 matches.
But Nadal is keen to play down the hype despite having arrived at the French Open with six titles from eight finals contested since his return to the tour in February.
He is also keenly aware that Djokovic, just one year his junior, relieved him of his Monte Carlo Masters title in April, a claycourt crown he had proudly worn for eight years.
“I didn’t have ambition to win Roland Garros; I didn’t have ambition to win Monte Carlo; I didn’t have ambition to win Indian Wells,” said Nadal.
“My only ambition is feel myself competitive another time, feel myself happy to play tennis another time, and try to play with no limitations.”
Nadal has faced Djokovic more times than he has faced Roger Federer, whose disappointing quarterfinals exit to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga only to served to fuel the speculation that the great Swiss is past his best.
The enormous expectation surrounding Nadal and Djokovic will be welcomed by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who faces David Ferrer in the other semifinals match as he continues his campaign to become France’s first home champion since Yannick Noah in 1983.