Novak Djokovic celebrated his 29th birthday two weeks ago, and Rafael Nadal turns 30 today. If this surprises you, it’s easy to see why: It feels like Nadal should be at least three or four years older than the no. 1 player in the world, probably because he had nine Grand Slams to his name by the time Djokovic won his second in 2011. This disparity underscores a basic truth of sports: You’re only as good as your body allows you to be, and right now, Nadal’s body is failing him. He’s only 30, but on the tennis court he may as well be 45.
Djokovic’s body, on the other hand, is doing just fine, earning him the title of “freak of nurture.” He’s held the top ranking in tennis for 100 straight weeks, and he’ll play Andy Murray for the French Open title on Sunday. This marks Djokovic’s sixth consecutive Grand Slam final, and win or lose, he’ll almost certainly be favored to win Wimbledon next month and the U.S. Open in September. But the French Open carries higher stakes for Djokovic than any of those other tournaments — it’s his last obstacle to becoming the eighth man to capture a career Grand Slam, that foremost hallmark of tennis greatness.
Though Djokovic locked up the other three majors by 2011, a title at Roland Garros has proven elusive, mainly because of Nadal’s invincibility on clay. Owner of an incredible nine French Open titles, Nadal had previously torched Djokovic six times at Roland Garros. The Serbian finally bested the Spaniard just last year in the quarters, but he fell in four sets to Stan Wawrinka in the final.
Now, Djokovic is back — his fourth appearance in a French Open final since 2012 — and he has his best shot yet to complete the career slam. In addition to Nadal’s mid-tournament withdrawal, Murray’s ousting of Wawrinka in the semifinals saved Djokovic from a rematch. Moreover, Djokovic has enjoyed a relatively easy path to the final — he’s played only one match that’s gone more than three sets, while Murray has done so four times — and his toughest opponent may have been himself, as he was almost disqualified after losing control of his racket — and it nearly hit an official — in the quarterfinals.
Murray will be no easy out, though. The world no. 2 defeated Djokovic on clay just last month, and he’s beaten Djokovic twice in Grand Slam finals before (Djokovic is 23–10 all time against the Brit). This is Murray’s first appearance in a French Open final, and hell, he just turned 29, too. If Nadal’s injury woes have taught us anything, it’s that an athlete’s prime can end at any time.
This will likely be on Djokovic’s mind as he prepares to take the court on Sunday. The oldest player to ever complete the career slam was Andre Agassi, at 29, and the list of men’s singles slam champions past age 30 is short. This is Djokovic’s third French Open final in a row, and he maintains an absurdly strict diet and an insane training regimen, but history suggests that his current position is way more tenuous than it appears. Fortune doesn’t just favor the bold — it favors the young.