Novak Djokovic set up a blockbuster French Open title showdown with Rafael Nadal after a dramatic five-set semi-final victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas, but insisted Sunday’s eagerly-awaited championship duel will “not be the biggest match of my life.”
World number one Djokovic, the 2016 champion at Roland Garros, reached his fifth final in Paris, defeating Greek fifth seed Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 in a roller-coaster of a contest where he had held a match point in the third set.
Nadal, the 12-time champion, eased past Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (7/0) to make a 13th final at the tournament.
On Sunday, Djokovic can win an 18th major and become the first man in half a century to win all four Slams twice.
Nadal, the world number two, can equal Roger Federer’s all-time record of 20 Grand Slam title wins.
Djokovic is one of only two men to have defeated Nadal at Roland Garros in 15 years.
“This is the house of Rafa,” said Djokovic ahead of the pair’s 56th career clash and his 27th appearance in a Slam final.
“I will have the motivation to win. I beat him in the quarter-finals in 2015 but this will be the biggest challenge – playing Nadal on clay.”
However, the Serb insisted that he has played far more significant finals and pointed to his first win over Nadal at a Slam at Wimbledon in 2011.
“I don’t think it’s the biggest match that I have ever played in my life. I think there were some bigger ones,” Djokovic said as he attempted to ease some of the expectations ahead of Sunday.
“In terms of importance, probably the first Wimbledon final that I actually played against him.
“Wimbledon was always the one that I wanted to win as a kid and dreamed of winning. That’s probably the one that stands out.”
Djokovic also put his 2016 Paris final win over Andy Murray, which allowed him to celebrate a career Grand Slam, above Sunday’s latest instalment of his Nadal rivalry.
“Every French Open final that I played was the match of my life before I actually won it.”
On Friday, Djokovic showed no sign of the neck and shoulder injuries which blighted his performance against Pablo Carreno Busta in the last eight as he stormed into a comfortable two-set lead.
Tsitsipas had seen 10 break points come and go and his first Roland Garros semi-final looked to be heading for an early finish until he staged a stunning comeback.
In the 10th game of the third set, Djokovic was unable to convert a match point.
He then picked up a time violation and the Greek exploited the top seed’s sudden unease to claim the third set.
Djokovic squandered a huge 10 break points in the fourth set as Tsitsipas, who had also been two sets down in his opening match against Jaume Munar, levelled the tie.
However, Tsitsipas, feeling a thigh injury picked up in Rome, faded away in the decider, dropping serve twice to hand Djokovic a 4-1 lead.
He saved another match point but was powerless on the third as Djokovic fired a clean winner.
“I think Novak is one of the most difficult opponents I’ve faced in my entire life,” said Tsitsipas.
For 34-year-old Nadal, his win over Schwartzman was his 99th at Roland Garros.
He is into his 28th final at the majors and has not dropped a set in the tournament this year.
Nadal has a 6-1 career edge of Djokovic at Roland Garros although their last meeting was in 2015 when Djokovic won in straight sets in the quarter-finals.
Amongst their five other meetings in the French capital were wins for Nadal in the 2012 and 2014 finals.
“Novak is one of the toughest opponents possible. But I am here to keep trying my best. I like to play in this scenario,” said Nadal.
“I know I have to make a step forward. I think I did one today against Diego. But for Sunday it is not enough.
“I need to make another one. That’s what I’m looking for. I going to work hard to try to make that happen.”