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The Pick: Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros semifinals
After last year's demolition, there is shockingly good value on the Serbian to keep things close in this 58th clash of titans.
Published Jun 10, 2021
In 2018, on a trip to IMG Academy to shoot a series of “Student Stories” with legendary coach Nick Bollettieri about the hilarious antics and untold stories of his 10 former world No. 1 pupils, I couldn’t help but ask him who he believed was the greatest tennis player of all time.
Unwilling to offer a final answer, stating that the final chapter has not yet been written, Bollettieri offered this.
“We don’t know yet, but in terms of the total package—forehand, backhand, serve, return, movement— Djokovic is the most complete tennis player I’ve ever seen. There is no weakness in that man’s game.”
The Serb’s only weakness throughout the past decade—one shared by every other tennis player in the world—is playing Rafael Nadal on clay. Though Djokovic leads their head-to-head record 29 to 28, he’s lost his last five clay-court matches with the Spaniard.
Last year’s autumn-staged French Open was supposedly Djokovic's best chance to defeat Nadal in the final. The cold conditions in Paris, combined with the heavier than normal Wilson balls, were supposed to tip the scales in the Serb’s favor. So much so, that Djokovic opened as a betting favorite in many markets, with the line ultimately closing at Nadal -140 (a gift from the betting gods that will never be seen again). But none of that mattered, as the left-hander beat the top seed like a drum, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.
This time around, the oddsmakers are taking no chances. Perhaps their algorithms and prediction models are finally weighing Nadal’s 105-2 record at Roland Garros—arguably the most impressive statistic in the history of sport—a little more appropriately. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, Nadal is listed as a -295 favorite and projected to win by 5.5 total games.
Just like Nadal’s incredible number last year, we may never again see a world No.1 projected to lose a match by 5.5 games. Nadal is more than deserving of the favoritism, but I’m sure if you asked him—or Uncle Toni—they would tell you that 5.5 games is too much.
“Against Djokovic we never know exactly the way,” Uncle Toni told Daniela Hantuchova. “What do we have to do? We have to move, but when we open the court, he can open it a little better sometimes. For our game, Djokovic is a little more difficult."
It’s a little more difficult for Nadal because the primary pattern—his crosscourt forehand to Djokovic’s backhand—pits two of the greatest shots of all time against one another nearly every point.
But the same can be said for Nadal’s forehand.
Nadal said it best during his post-match press conference on Wednesday.
“The player who is playing better that day is going to have better chances.”
According to both players and coaches on-site, there is less clay on the court, which means it plays a bit faster than normal, and the Wilson balls are much lighter and more maneuverable than last year. This is welcome news for Djokovic, who should be able to redirect his backhand down the line more effectively.
At the end of the day, it’s impossible to bet against Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier, but projecting him to once again throttle the world No. 1 is also too aggressive.
When the 2016 French Open titlist is this emotionally invested in a tournament, he tends to win. We’re not saying he will defeat Nadal on Friday, but from a betting perspective, Djokovic to cover his 5.5 game spread is a solid bet. Especially given he is the only active competitor to unseat the 13-time champion in the place Dominic Thiem calls Rafa's living room.