Nadal, Djokovic renew best rivalry in tennis for French Open final spot

Nadal-Djokovic

Rafael Nadal, right, of Spain embraces Novak Djokovic of Serbia at the end of their final match at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Sunday, May 19, 2019. (Gregorio Borgia / AP)

Rafael Nadal versus Novak Djokovic.

Yin and yang.

It is the most prolific rivalry in the history of tennis, with a record 57 meetings between the two players. For all intents and purposes, it is also the very best.

The two ferocious competitors who have tussled in memorable epics on the biggest stages of the tennis pantheon since their very first encounter, which coincidentally came at Roland Garros some fifteen years ago.

Much history has transpired since.

When Nadal completed his career slam at the US Open in 2010, it was Djokovic whom he defeated in a four-set thriller in New York City. Djokovic returned the favour the following year, winning his first at Flushing Meadows.

The two played an extraordinary five-set marathon into the early Melbourne morning at the Australian Open in 2012, the longest Grand Slam final in history (and some may say the best), as Djokovic rallied from 4-2 down in the final set to win.

They played at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, as Nadal edged Djokovic en route to a gold medal.

In 2018, the two pushed one another to the brink at the All England Club, as Djokovic prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8 in a match that lasted over five hours, and was suspended due to darkness. Djokovic would defeat Kevin Anderson for his fourth Wimbledon title a day later.

They’ve played countless finals and big matches across the globe, with meetings in London, Rome, Monte-Carlo, Madrid, Miami, Indian Wells, Cincinnati, Hamburg, Beijing and Qatar – just to name a few.

They have both managed to reach the upper echelons of the sport with their own brand of punishing tennis.

Nadal is the unwavering and unrelenting competitor, brandishing a mighty and heavy lefty forehand, ruthless speed, deceptively great hands and feel and the will of a superhero.

Djokovic is his own unique force, with the elasticity of a gymnast and precision of a painter, a two-handed backhand that is unassailable and court coverage that at times is unfair.

Now meeting LVIII comes in the French Open men’s semifinals on Court Phillippe-Chatrier in Paris on Friday.

Djokovic reflected on another impending encounter with Rafa.

“Each time we face each other, there is that extra tension and expectations. Vibes are different walking on the court with him,” he told reporters Thursday.

Djokovic has often spoken with respect and admiration for Nadal, who he calls his greatest personal rival. The two competitors can sometimes unlock previously unseen levels on a tennis court. Yet as close as the rivalry stands on paper (29-28 in favour of Djokovic), aspects of it have been one-sided depending on the surface.

You can guess where Nadal makes his coin in this matchup: clay.

Nadal has won 19 of their 26 career matches on the dirt, including the last five.

Their most recent match came in Rome just one month ago, where Nadal prevailed in a closely contested final 7-5, 1-6, 6-3.

It’s also not hyperbolic to suggest beating Nadal at the French Open is one of the tallest orders in sports history. He’s an astounding 105-2 at the event.

Djokovic is the only active player to ever defeat him at the tournament, doing so in 2015. In 2009, Robin Soderling of Sweden shocked the tennis world with a four-set victory over Nadal in the round of 16.

Of course, much greater history is on the line if we look ahead and past this semifinal. Currently Nadal stands tied with Roger Federer for the most singles Grand Slams of all time with 20. A 14th French Open title and he stands alone with the record.

In the meantime, Djokovic is only two behind Nadal with 18 Grand Slams and could shrink that gap to one.

He is also seeking to become the first man in the Open Era to win all four of the Grand Slams twice.

The world No. 1 has had a bumpy, yet altogether impressive road in Paris to reach the semis.

He comfortably navigated the first week of the event with little resistance, defeating Tennys Sandgren, Pablo Cuevas and Ricardis Berankis in straight sets.

The round of 16 posed a different challenge when he ran into the wonderfully talented Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti, who put him on the ropes quickly, winning the first two sets in tiebreaks.

From that point on, Djokovic produced an onslaught of world-class tennis to storm back; he won 16 of the next 17 service games before Musetti threw in the towel.

Following his quarterfinal win over Matteo Berrettini, he unleashed the full depths of his emotions with the victory celebration.

Nadal’s road has been one less travelled. He’s dropped just one set, coming against Diego Schwartzman in a quarterfinal win, and found his best tennis to close that match out in four.

It was at times, a vintage showcase of penetrating, offensive groundstrokes mixed with unbreakable defence, like in this rally:

Nadal should be the more confident player ahead of this latest installment. After all, he dismantled Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in the French Open final last fall to win his 13th crown at Roland Garros.

The world No. 1 will no doubt have his hands full.

“Last year, he just dominated the finals against me,” Djokovic said at a press conference Thursday.

“But I believe I can win, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Let’s have a great battle.” On the other side, Nadal was asked to assess the best and worst prospects of facing Djokovic yet again.

He offered this honest assessment.

“The best thing is you know that you need to play your best tennis. You know what you really must do if you really want chances at success. It’s a big challenge. In some way, we are practicing and living the sport for these moments.”

The worst thing?

“It’s difficult,” Nadal smiled.

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