Comment: Rafael Nadal has the Paris fans on his side – but Novak Djokovic is favourite

It was a telling moment at the end of an epic contest for Rafael Nadal.

The Spanish legend’s 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 win against Felix Auger-Aliassime will live long in the memory, as the 13-time French Open champion notched yet another victory on his favourite court to set up another meeting with his arch rival Novak Djokovic.

And if Nadal needed any reminding who the bulk of the Parisian fans would be supporting when the ‘big two’ clash in an unfortunately early stage of the French Open, it came as the post-match interview took place on court.

The mere mention of Djokovic’s name inspired boos from a section of the crowd, with the Serbian’s status as world No 1 and reigning champion in Paris not enough for some to give him the respect he is surely due.

When the the tennis version of granite and rock clash on Court Philippe-Chatrier once again, it is safe to assume Nadal will have the majority of the fans on site backing his cause.

Yet that is likely to count for nothing against Djokovic, who has looked ruthlessly determined to succeed in each and every game in Paris this year.

The 20-time Grand Slam champion is on a mission to make up for lost time at the second major championships of the year and if the crowd get on his back, as they have done at times in recent days, he will use that as motivation to snap back at them.

The Djokovic we are seeing at this French Open looks more motivated than ever and he will see this upcoming clash as the ultimate chance to crush a rival who took advantage of his absence from the Australian Open – due to the Serbian’s refusal to take a Covid-19 vaccine – by winning in Melbourne in January.

“I think Rafa will find an opponent in Novak Djokovic who is extremely motivated,” declared Eurosport pundit Mats Wilander.

“I think he’s using the crowd to fire himself up unbelievably well, whether they’re for him or whether they’re for the underdog because they’re not against him. But the crowd is definitely for the underdog often in this tournament. Tennis-wise, I can’t believe Novak has got back to back that level fast.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the end of the match

“I’m unbelievably excited for this match because I remember last year when they played in the semis, I called it maybe the most important much in the history of tennis because the winner of that was most probably going to win the 20th Grand Slam. I’m saying it again.

“We have to really cherish this moment because I don’t know how many more times these guys could play here at Roland Garros or at the US Open. We’re asking a lot of these guys so I think that this is an unbelievable opportunity to cherish these great players.

“Novak is looking unbelievably strong. He’s determined. He’s moving unbelievably well, he’s being as aggressive as I’ve ever seen him at the same time as he throws in the drop shots at the right time. He’s using the energy of the crowd because obviously, they are for the underdog. They’re not against Novak, but they’re for the underdog.

“Novak is turning it into – ‘well you know what I’m going to show you I’m number one in the world’ – with his body language and it helps him with the crowd. I guess I expect the same thing against Rafa because no one is against Rafa in Paris. I think the emotional battle is going to be unbelievable. I hope I can get a seat!”

Djokovic beat an injured Nadal in a classic contest at the French Open last year and there must be a danger that the five-set energy sapper against Auger-Aliassime will leave the veteran Spaniard jaded. Indeed, it might even aggravate his ongoing foot problem. 

Yet whatever condition Nadal is in on Tuesday, the world will be watching when two of the game’s all-time greats lock horns once more – and this time you suspect Djokovic will not leave the court until he is victorious.