June 10, 2021

A Striking Imbalance


That's how many Grand Slam titles reside with each half of the remaining men's draw at Roland Garros. If that's not enough of an disparity for you, how's this? 56-1: the number of times each side has played a Major final. Or 73-5: how many semis. However you slice it, there is a huge difference in experience between the top and bottom halves of the draws. And while one may be brimming with opportunity, the other won't step aside that easily.

When the draws were released nearly two weeks ago, we were all disappointed to see Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal -- not to mention Roger Federer -- on the same side of the bracket. It seemed like some credit should be given to Rafa's thirteen titles here, even if he had ceded the #2 ranking. I mean, if these two should meet in Paris -- for the eighth time -- shouldn't it be in the final?

And they have, unsurprisingly, played up to form over this fortnight. Djokovic, who claimed a title in his hometown of Belgrade just a day before play started at the French -- had a weird fourth round against young Lorenzo Musetti, dropping the first two sets in tiebreaks before steamrolling through the next two and a half, but was in top form against Matteo Berrettini in yesterday's quarter. Nadal, meanwhile, may have had his 36-set win streak here broken in the quarters here, but he continues to find his best game when it matters and remains undefeated since 2015.

There's a lot at stake in their match tomorrow -- whoever wins will certainly take the advantage into Sunday's final, and a title there has historic implications. For Rafa, still the favorite no matter his ranking, two more wins earns him a record 21 Grand Slam titles, pulling him out of his current tie with Federer and potentially putting him in unreachable territory. But if Novak gets the win -- and he could, he was the last to actually beat Nadal on these courts -- he climbs within one Major of his rivals, and the way he's been playing Down Under, could fast establish himself as leader of the pack.

But does a win tomorrow necessarily guarantee a title at Roland Garros? Chomping at the bit in the bottom half, after all, is Stefanos Tsitsipas, who's been having one of the best clay court seasons out there -- 21 wins on the dirt so far, not to mention titles in Monte Carlo and Lyon, give him arguably a better run even than Rafa this year. He came pretty dang close to beating him in Barcelona, too, so this could be the best chance he's had yet to not only make his first final, but maybe even cause the upset of the century in it.

Meanwhile, Alexander Zverev, who dropped his first two sets in Paris to qualifier Oscar Otte before going on a fifteen-set win streak, came OHSOCLOSE to victory in his first Slam championship last year. He also has a win over Rafa on clay this year, getting the better of him on the way to a Madrid title last month. He's had a relatively easy path in Paris, though, without facing another seeded player yet, so let's see how he does when he's pitted against someone who's been so strong this year, because the winner of tomorrow's first semi will have a huge opportunity come Sunday.

Of course, it's going to be hard for one of the Next Gen to have his breakthrough against the OG. The last person outside of the Big Three to beat one of them during his run to a Major title was Stan Wawrinka all the way back in 2016. And we know these guys only up their games when the stakes are highest.

Still, the scales are going to start tipping in favor of these guys eventually, and if victory comes when the long-time champions are still at their prime, it'll only mean that much more. Because it seems certain that "0" at the top is going to tick up, and the only question is when.

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