The French Open starts on Sunday, and if the tennis gods are feeling benevolent, it will conclude two Sundays hence with a final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the two best players in the world and protagonists in what has become the sport's most prolific and important rivalry.
Last Sunday, the two met in the final of the Italian Open; it was the 18th time they've played since 2011 and the 41st match in a rivalry that dates back to 2006. No two players have faced each other more in the Open era of tennis than Nadal and Djokovic and no two players have contested more finals in the Open era (21 at latest count). Along the way, they've played the longest grand slam final of the Open era, and the longest three-set match, too. Although it has been the preeminent rivalry in men's tennis going back to 2011 (they've contested six of the last 13 grand slam finals), it continues to be overshadowed by the rivalry between Nadal and Roger Federer.
In part, that's because Nadal is closing in on Federer's record 17 grand slam singles titles (the Spaniard has 13 at the moment). It is perhaps also due to the fact that Nadal and Federer offer a clearer stylistic contrast than Nadal and Djokovic. But Federer-Nadal has always been a very one-sided rivalry (Nadal has won 23 of their 33 matches), and it has yielded none of the drama in recent years that Nadal and Djokovic have served up. This year's French promises to be particularly momentous. Nadal is seeking his ninth title in Paris, an all-time record for any major.
Djokovic is looking for his first French Open title, which would make him one of only a handful of men to have completed a career grand slam (Federer and Nadal have both done it). Nadal beat Djokovic in an epic five-hour semifinal at last year's French; if Djokovic can finally beat Nadal on the clay in Paris, he will have achieved something Federer has never done, and perhaps the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry will at last get the spotlight and respect it deserves.
Nadal and Djokovic By the Numbers:
Djokovic: 26 years old, height: 6'2
Nadal: 27 years old, height: 6'1
Career meetings: 41
Head to Head Record: 22-19 in favor of Nadal
Grand Slam finals: 3-3
Longest five-set match: 5:53, 2012 Australian Open final
Longest three-set match: 4:03, 2009 Madrid Masters semifinal
Longest point: 54 shots, 2013 US Open final
Longest game: 17 minutes, 2011 US Open final
Head-to-Head on Clay: 13-4 in favor of Nadal
Head to Head on Hard Courts: 14-7 in favor of Djokovic
Head to Head on Grass: 2-1 in favor of Nadal