If there's a French Open record to be held, it's likely that Rafael Nadal holds it. You've probably heard the statistics before. The Spaniard has won nine French Open titles in 10 years. He is an astonishing 70-1 at Roland Garros in his career, with his lone loss coming in 2009 in the fourth round to Robin Soderling.
And yet Wednesday in the quarterfinals, Nadal will be in a very unfamiliar position: underdog.
That's right: The match that everyone circled when the draw came out 10 days ago has come to fruition. In a rematch of the Roland Garros final from two of the past three years and a repeat of the epic four-hour, 37-minute semifinal here two years ago, No. 1 Novak Djokovic will try to get his first win at Roland Garros over No. 7 Nadal, with a spot in the French Open semifinals on the line.
Nadal advanced to the quarterfinals by taking out young American Jack Sock and his lethal forehand Monday in the fourth round, 6-3, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2. The dropped third set was Nadal's first of the tournament, though before meeting Sock all of his opponents were ranked lower than No. 100 in the world.
The 14-time Grand Slam champion hasn't looked as shaky during the French Open as he has at times this European clay-court season, a two-month period that has included zero titles and losses to Djokovic, Fabio Fognini, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. However, he also hasn't looked like the world-beater he has been in the past.
Djokovic, meanwhile, only dropped six games total in a fourth-round victory over Richard Gasquet on Monday. He continues to look like the same player who has dominated the men's game in 2015 and is currently riding a 26-match winning streak.
Now, the two will meet for the 44th time in their careers. Nadal leads the head-to-head 23-20, but the Serb has won five of their last six meetings. The only exception? Last year's final at Roland Garros.
Yup, this is one of those rare cases where the buzz for a match is actually justified.
"There it is, the men's final, this Wednesday," Mary Carrillo said on Tennis Channel when Djokovic converted his match point against Gasquet to set up the blockbuster affair.
Of course, you can keep the hype to yourself—Nadal is having none of it.
"You can write what you want if it sells, but this is not the match of the year. Matches of the year are finals, decisive matches," Nadal told the press after his fourth-round win, per Christopher Clarey of the New York Times.
It's natural that Nadal is trying to minimize the importance of this match. He's a guy who is used to playing for—and winning—trophies at this tournament, after all. He's also the one who got the short end of the stick with this draw. Nadal typically gets stronger as a tournament goes on, and now he's heading into a match against the world No. 1 without having faced a single seeded player this fortnight.
Plus, Nadal's been the one who has had questionable form this year. He's the one without a significant title of any kind since the French Open last year. He's the one whose ranking has dropped, thus causing this premature meeting of superstars. He's the one we should be worried about, right?
I mean, Djokovic is sailing. He has won five titles this year: four Masters Series events and the Australian Open. Throughout the past few years, Djokovic has become at ease in the role of the favorite.
This year, now a father and a husband and content on and off the court, he's more focused than ever on winning a French Open title and completing his career Slam. Now he gets the chance to clear his biggest hurdle early in the second week, before the championship fanfare can take over. That, to my mind, is a big bonus.
And yet despite Nadal's suspect form and Djokovic's great run, and despite the way this draw played out, it's still hard to imagine a world in which Nadal loses to Djokovic at the French Open, as Peter Bodo of Tennis.com explained on the eve of the event:
The amazing thing about this tournament, most poignantly for Nadal himself, is that nobody can imagine him winning this year—yet nobody in his right mind can imagine him losing, either. Nadal is 66-1 at Roland Garros, has won this tournament nine of the last 10 years, and the last five years running. That means something. It suggests that Nadal just might be able to win this tournament even if Boris Becker and Severin Luthi kidnapped him and sawed his right leg off just above the knee on the night before his first match.
Nadal's domination at Roland Garros has been laughably absurd, but it's also become a given. It's part of the foundation of the tennis year. In a sport where so much changes, where upsets are everywhere and where Marin Cilic wins a Grand Slam, there's been comfort in counting on Nadal at the French Open.
So perhaps it's best if the statistics and the seeds are thrown out the window Wednesday. When Nadal first took the court at Roland Garros back in 2005, nobody could have imagined that he would own the clay courts of Paris the way he has over the last decade. It's just not something that makes sense.
This year, for the first time since then, expectations are lower—but perhaps that's just us overthinking things. After all, it's still Nadal, and it's still Roland Garros. There's pure magic in that marriage.
Something will have to give Wednesday—Nadal's dominance in Paris or Djokovic's dominance in 2015. We're going to see a familiar matchup in a familiar setting, and yet the feeling surrounding it will be unusual.
It's easy to consider recent history and pick Djokovic for the win—and, admittedly, that's exactly what I did before this tournament began. But the closer we get to the anticipated showdown, the more foolish it feels to count out a nine-time champion.