Go all the way back to June 8, 2006, when Rafael Nadal moved on at the French Open after his 19-year-old, 63rd-ranked opponent in the quarter-finals quit because of a bad back while trailing two sets to none.
That opponent’s assessment of Nadal after facing him for the first time as pros: “He’s the best on this surface, but he’s not unbeatable. That’s for sure.”
That foe? Novak Djokovic.
Fast-forward to the final at Roland Garros on Sunday, when No.1 Djokovic and No.2 Nadal will stand across from each other once again at Court Philippe Chatrier, only this time in October after the tournament was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It will be their 56th tour-level meeting — more than any other pair of men in the Open era, which dates to 1968.
And let’s not forget the big picture: This match carries significant weight in the Grand Slam standings that so many fans, and the players themselves, keep tabs on.
Roger Federer, who is 39 and missed most of this season after having two knee operations, owns the men’s record of 20 major championships. Nadal, who is 34, is next among men with 19; Djokovic, 33, stands third with 17.
After Sunday, either Nadal will pull even with Federer for the first time since they were tied with zero apiece, or Djokovic will gain on the leading duo and the totals will read 20-19-18.
For now, this is how each has filled his trophy cabinet:
— Djokovic: 8 at the Australian Open, 5 at Wimbledon, 3 at the U.S. Open, 1 at the French Open;
— Nadal: 12 at the French Open, 4 at the U.S. Open, 2 at Wimbledon, 1 at the Australian Open;
— Federer: 8 at Wimbledon, 6 at the Australian Open, 5 at the U.S. Open, 1 at the French Open.
All three are greats of the game, regardless of where the numbers end up, of course.
Still, as much as Nadal wouldn’t engage in a discussion about his chance to catch Federer after beating Diego Schwartzman 6-3 6-3 7-6 (0) in the semi-finals Friday, he did acknowledge that “it’s good for tennis” if others talk about it.
Rest assured, they will.
Much in the way that for years, people will debate which of the Big Three duos had the most intriguing head-to-head matchup: Federer vs. Nadal, Djokovic vs. Federer, or Nadal vs. Djokovic.
“He’s definitely my greatest rival,” Djokovic said about Nadal on Friday after getting past Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3 6-2 5-7 4-6 6-1 in the semi-finals.
“Playing him in so many great matches, of course the past will have some effect, in terms of respect towards each other, I guess — motivation to get out on the court and play your best, knowing that we both have to be at our best in order to win against each other.”
Nadal called Djokovic, who is 37-1 in 2020, the lone loss via disqualification at the US Open last month, “one of the toughest opponents possible.”
“The only thing I know is: To play against Novak, I need to play my best. Without playing my best tennis, (the) situation is very difficult,” Nadal said.
“I know that is a court that I have been playing well (on) for such a long time, so that helps.”
Djokovic leads 29-26 overall.
Nadal leads 9-6 in Grand Slam matches, including 6-1 at the French Open.
They’re tied four-all in major finals.
And while Nadal is 99-2 over his remarkable career at Roland Garros — “It’s his house,” Djokovic said — it is worth noting that one of those defeats came courtesy of Djokovic in the 2015 quarter-finals.
“I hopefully will be able to play my best tennis, because that’s what’s going to be needed in order to have a shot at the trophy,” said Djokovic, describing Nadal on red clay as “the biggest obstacle and challenge that you can have.”
“This is what it comes down to. I’ve been there; I’ve done it,” he said. “I understand what needs to be done and how I need to prepare myself. I’m looking forward to it.”