Friday 10 to 1: Djokovic v Nadal
Ahead of their blockbuster clash in tonight's French Open semifinals, we look back at the 10 best matches of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal's storied rivalry.
By virtue of winning their French Open quarterfinals in straight sets on Wednesday, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have set up a blockbuster semifinal at Roland Garros, to be staged tonight (AEST).
It will be the 35th chapter of their storied rivalry, in which Nadal leads the overall head-to-head 19-15, as well as 12-3 on clay, 4-0 at Roland Garros 4-0 and 6-5 in semifinals.
In a prelude to what is sure to be a stunning clash, we look back at the 10 best matches this pair have contested over the years.
Djokovic started like house on fire, racing to 3-0 lead before Nadal, as he often does, steadied the ship. The match featured the brutal, gruelling hitting that has come to characterise their matches over the years, and even though the Serb lost, the signs were already apparent that he would be the one player who could trouble Nadal on clay – this match represented the first time Djokovic had taken a set off Nadal in a claycourt match.
A few months on from their Hamburg meeting, Nadal and Djokovic met in the higher-stakes setting of the Olympic tennis event in Beijing. The match was a fabulous encounter, with more dynamic and explosive hitting – thanks to the hardcourt surface – and a vocal Chinese crowd contributing to the atmosphere. In the tense final stages the match could have gone either way until Djokovic missed a sitter of a smash on match point to send the Spaniard through to the Gold Medal match.
This match was played squarely on Nadal’s turf – the Spaniard owned the Monte Carlo event, winning the past four editions heading into the 2009 decider (and winning three after that to take his tally to eight straight). So when Djokovic won the second set – the first time Nadal had dropped a set in Monaco for three years – the match took a very unexpected turn. But the Serb couldn’t maintain his momentum, and Nadal wrested back the momentum in the third to claim yet another claycourt crown.
Incredibly, this match marked the first time Djokovic had ever beaten Nadal in a final, having previously gone 0-5 against Rafa in tournament finales. The win in the Californian desert formed part of Djokovic’s spectacular 41-match winning streak to open the 2011 season, reaping seven titles. Instead of the usual pattern that determined their matches, it was Djokovic gaining in strength as the match wore on, and he collected just his eighth win in 24 meetings (to that stage) with his Spanish rival.
Meeting for the first time in a Grand Slam final, Nadal and Djokovic put on a show for the energetic New York crowd. Even the very first point was an epic, and the pair took 20 minutes simply to split the first four games. Despite the evenly-matched, long and gruelling rallies, Nadal always looked to the one in control, and in some of the best form of his life, went on to capture his third straight major title and first US Open crown.
Rarely has there been more history riding on a match than this one. Djokovic was bidding to become the first man to win four majors in a row since Rod Laver in 1969, while Nadal was aiming to become the first man to capture seven French Open titles. The match was played across two days as persistent rain saw the match suspended, and this possibly helped Nadal, who prior to the suspension had lost eight straight games to go down a break in the fourth. He returned the next day to wrap up a famous victory.
Meeting in their second straight Masters final after Indian Wells a fortnight prior, this US spring hardcourt battle was possibly even better. In sapping, humid conditions, the world’s premier players at that moment fought for nearly three-and-a-half hours, and appropriately, it required a final set tiebreak to separate them. Clearly drawing on the confidence that his Indian Wells victory had delivered, Djokovic was the superior performer in the final stages and closed out a memorable win.
Physically, this is possibly the most brutal tennis match ever played. Despite being only four sets, it featured some of the most breath-taking rallies you will ever witness, with incredible retrieving – particularly from the elastic Djokovic – contributing to some jaw-dropping points. In a reprise of their 2010 final in New York, the quality of this encounter was arguably higher, and the result reversed – Djokovic triumphed in four sets to claim his third Grand Slam title of 2011 and his sixth straight final victory over Nadal.
Arguably the most epic match of all time outside of a Grand Slam, Djokovic came agonisingly close to upsetting the King of Clay in his own backyard, holding three match points deep in the final set. Yet Nadal showed his trademark poise under pressure and extreme will to win, urged on by around 15,000 fans in an electric atmosphere and finally claiming victory after an extraordinary four hours and two minutes.
In one of the greatest Grand Slam finals in history, Djokovic and Nadal slugged it out for almost six hours before Djokovic was finally crowned the champion early on Monday morning. Nadal, after looking down and out in the fourth set, roared back to send it into a fifth – and the crowd into raptures – and was ever so close to taking a commanding 5-2 lead in the decider. But a missed sitter of a backhand denied him break points in the seventh game and gave Djokovic hope; the Serb clawed his way back, ultimately closing out the classic with a stylish forehand winner.