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Novak Djokovic moves to the precipice of tennis supremacy

Novak Djokovic has a chance for a career-crowning moment on June 11 – a 23rd Grand Slam singles title, one more than Rafael Nadal. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS – The Philippe Chatrier Court at Roland Garros has long been Rafael Nadal’s second home.

He has won 14 French Open singles titles there, his record at Roland Garros is 112-3, and a statue of him sits on the grounds.

So maybe it is fitting that Novak Djokovic has a chance for a career-crowning moment on Sunday – a 23rd Grand Slam singles title, one more than Nadal – on the very court where his rival has dominated this generation.

If he can pull that off – and he is a heavy favourite to do so against Casper Ruud of Norway – it will be the tennis equivalent of him barging into Nadal’s house, raiding his refrigerator and plopping down on his living room couch to watch a “Godfather” marathon.

“There is history on the line,” the 36-year-old Serb said after his win over world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz on Friday.

“I like the feeling. Pressure is always on my shoulders, so it’s not going to be different (on Sunday). I think that having pressure is a privilege. It’s a source of motivation, as well. Great motivation to play well.

“I hope that I’ll play my best tennis level on Sunday. The only thing I can say now is that I’m very focused.”

In Ruud, who dominated Alexander Zverev, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0, Djokovic will face someone who has made three Grand Slam finals since 2022 but who lost in his previous two – in the French Open and the US Open last season.

Ruud, 24, has yet to take a set from reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion Djokovic across four matches, which puts the latter in prime position to eclipse Nadal.

Djokovic has been managing this sort of feat for the better part of 15 years, and shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.

It started when he transformed elite tennis into a three-way battle for supremacy from its previous existence as a binary rivalry/love fest between Nadal and Roger Federer.

With a win on Sunday, he would be the only player among that trio with at least three singles titles at each Grand Slam.

On Friday afternoon at Roland Garros, he showed what he was made of once more against Alcaraz. The duo had shown themselves to be a level better than anyone else during the past year as they took turns winning Grand Slam titles and clamouring for the world’s top ranking.

The match had figured to be one for the ages, a clash of generations and a potential torch passing.

Instead, Djokovic scored a 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 victory for the old guard, registering a kind of technical knockout against a cramping Alcaraz.

It was a victory of wisdom and experience on a day when Alcaraz, in a moment of raw frankness, admitted he had been overcome by the idea of facing Djokovic on this giant stage. The cramps were all about the stress of playing in just his second Grand Slam semi-final, against someone playing in his 45th.

Whether Ruud will face the same kind of nerves is a question to be answered.

Sunday will be Djokovic’s 34th Grand Slam final (only a third for Ruud).

Not long ago, one might have guessed he would be facing Nadal. But the Spaniard pulled out of this tournament with injuries, leaving a grand stage for Djokovic.

With Alcaraz out of the way, and with few expecting Ruud to be a tougher challenge, the pressure will fall squarely on Djokovic – exactly how he likes it.

On the other side of the net on Sunday, 2022 runner-up Ruud said that relying on “autopilot” and not overthinking could be his best bet to succeed.

It was not a lack of confidence, for he has the most wins on clay since 2020 with 87, most finals with 12 and nine titles. Perhaps it was just tempered expectations.

“It’s a matter of not thinking that there’s a really big need for me to win this match. That’s a word I try to avoid,” he said.

“I’m going to of course give it my all, but sometimes you play your best tennis when you don’t think too much. It just goes into automatic mode.

“I’m just going to go out there and know that it’s going to be a long match, a marathon match, and play point by point. Let’s see how that goes.” NYTIMES, REUTERS, AFP