Either way, you have to salute Djokovic for the way he continues to add new wrinkles to his game. The thinking behind this latest wheeze is typically sharp. He knows that this year’s new Wilson balls are heavier than last year’s Babolats, and that the cold temperatures and claggy clay will keep the bounce to a minimum.
Djokovic is the Moriarty of tennis, always seeing at least one step further than his rivals. Many view him as an anti-hero, yet you still have to admire his relentless dedication and ingenuity.
Tomorrow’s final will do much to shape how Djokovic’s 2020 is remembered: for good or ill. At the moment, the overall verdict is probably a hung jury.
Throughout this bizarre year, he has been making more headlines than the rest of the world’s tennis players put together. It all started predictably enough in Australia in January, where he powered Serbia to victory in the the inaugural ATP Cup and then pipped Dominic Thiem to the season’s first slam.
But then things turned a little strange. Djokovic’s weird views on medicine – gluten intolerance, he believes, will make your muscles weaken as soon as you pick up a slice of bread – were highlighted by the pandemic.
He expressed public scepticism over vaccines – leading Serbia’s leading epidemiologist to politely suggest that he keep quiet – and then presided over an exhibition event in the Balkans which led to four leading players contracting Covid-19, including himself.
Even when the players gathered in New York in mid-August for what promised to be a month of straightforward ball-bashing, Djokovic was still creating controversy. He infuriated the people who run the men’s tour by launching a new player’s association. And then, most dramatically, he eliminated himself from the US Open by accidentally hitting a lineswoman in the throat.
A tough year, then, for the world No 1? Perhaps, but also an incredibly dominant one. After 38 matches, that fourth-round meeting with Pablo Carreno Busta in New York tournament remains the only blip. Had it not been for that flare of temper, which earned him the first default from a major in 30 years, he would probably have mopped up an 18th title at that level. Even now, he remains on course to go through 2020 without losing to anyone except the grand-slam rulebook.
There are more numbers spinning around this match than the National Lottery’s draw machines. A win for Djokovic would make him the first man to complete the double career slam – which requires winning each of the four majors twice – in the Open era. It would also earn him that 18th major, one short of Nadal.
A win for Nadal would give him 20 – and thus equal Roger Federer’s all-time record. But everyone knows who Federer himself will be rooting for. He sees Nadal as the yin to his yang. One suspects that he sees Djokovic as a bumptious gooseberry.
Speaking on ITV4 after the semi-finals, the former world No 1 Jim Courier sounded delighted at the prospect of another collision – the 56th at tour level – between the two most decorated players in the field.
“There is so much on the line,” he said. “It is just magnificent to see these two amazing players do it again here at Roland Garros in the final with so much happening. “It is going to be difficult to finish points,” Courier added. “It is going to be colder on Sunday and I think the drop shot is going to be key for the both of them. Rafa is a little more comfortable with the forehand drop shot and Novak a little more comfortable on the backhand. We will look for that for sure in the final.”