Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will collide for the 58th time on Friday on the same field where they first met 15 years ago, with a place in the French Open final on the line.
It is the greatest modern rivalry in tennis between two men who have won 38 Grand Slam titles and 72 Masters.
Djokovic has spent more weeks at number one in the world than any other player, while 13-time French Open winner Nadal hasn’t been out of the top 10 in 16 years.
Nadal starts Friday’s semi-final as a favourite, bolstered by his record of 105 wins and just two defeats in his Roland Garros career.
The 35-year-old also has a lead over Djokovic on clay with a career lead of 19-7 and 7-1 in Paris.
Djokovic has not beaten Nadal on the surface since Rome in 2016.
However, he can boast of being one of only two men to beat Nadal in the quarter-finals in Paris in 2015.
“It’s a highly anticipated semi-final and here we are,” said Djokovic of a rivalry that began at Court Philippe Chatrier in 2006.
“We’ve had some battles on this field over the years.”
Nadal defeated 2016 champion Djokovic in straight sets in last year’s final, the Serb’s third defeat in the championship game in Paris against the Spaniard.
There is plenty at stake on Friday as the two rivals approach Sunday’s final.
Djokovic can win a 19th Slam and become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four Slams twice.
Victory for Nadal would earn him a record-breaking 21st major, breaking a tie with Roger Federer.
“The atmosphere is different when you walk on the pitch with him,” Djokovic added. “But that’s why our rivalry has been historic.”
It was a mixed tournament for Djokovic.
After racing through the first three laps, he had to come back from two sets behind to beat Italian 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti.
In the quarterfinals, he dropped the third set against Matteo Berrettini.
With the exception of an outlier in the second set in the quarter-finals against Diego Schwartzman, Nadal has reached his 14th semi-final relatively unscathed.
But despite his stranglehold on Djokovic’s gravel, Nadal is not too far ahead of things.
‘Ego tells me I want more’
“It’s a semi-final, not a final. That’s a big difference,” he said.
The final chapter of Djokovic v Nadal has overshadowed Friday’s other semi-final between Greece’s fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas and Germany’s sixth-seeded Alexander Zverev.
They have met seven times, but only once on clay in Madrid in 2019, when Tsitsipas was victorious.
Tsitsipas, 22, is in his third consecutive semifinal at the Slams, taking Djokovic to five sets in the final four at Roland Garros in 2020.
He arrived in Paris this year with clay titles in Monte Carlo and Lyon and had a match point to beat Nadal in the Barcelona final.
“I feel privileged to be in this position (to reach three Slam-halves). I put in a lot of hard work every day and that’s an important element of my presence here,” said Tsitsipas.
“But you know, my ego tells me I want more.”
Zverev is in his first semifinal at Roland Garros and nearly fell at the first hurdle against 152nd ranked compatriot Oscar Otte.
“It’s nice that I didn’t play against Rafa or Novak in the quarter-finals,” Zverev admitted.
“I think Rafa, for example, playing here in the final is even worse. It’s even more difficult. But I also have to be there first.”
Those who make it to the final on Sunday will have a hard time.
Tsitsipas is 2-7 against Nadal and 2-5 against Djokovic.
Zverev is 3-6 against Nadal and 2-6 against Djokovic.