Some of the cliches shared by players when they look towards their next battles are the affirmations they must take one match at a time and ensure they treat all opponents in the same manner. However, as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal prepare to face each other for the ninth time at Roland Garros on Friday and 58th time overall, Djokovic had no interest in avoiding reality.
“It’s not like any other match,” he said. “Let’s face it, it’s the biggest challenge that you can have, playing on clay against Nadal on this court in which he has had so much success in his career. In the final stages of a grand slam, it doesn’t get bigger than that.
“Each time we face each other, there’s that extra tension and expectations. Just vibes are different walking on the court with him. But that’s why our rivalry has been historic, I think, for this sport.”
Nobody has pushed Nadal and beaten him as frequently on clay as Djokovic, but there is a vast difference between the wins he has been able to collect over best‑of‑three matches, where he holds a 6-11 record against Nadal, and the very limited damage he has inflicted in Paris. Although there have been numerous breathless, incredibly difficult matches, Nadal leads 7-1 at Roland Garros.
Few matches underline how difficult the challenge is like last year’s October final. Between the cold weather and the new Wilson balls, criticised heavily by Nadal, the height and force of Nadal’s heavy topspin was significantly affected by the conditions. Nadal was also just coming back from his extended pandemic break after missing the US swing. He had lost badly in Rome and so was still building up form in the early rounds of Paris. There was unusual confidence about Djokovic’s chances.
But in the final, Nadal tore Djokovic apart. The Serb said after the 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 defeat he had been outplayed and also that he thought the conditions would be favourable to him. Instead, Nadal taught everyone another lesson to be heeded: if he is playing well enough to go deep into the tournament, his court is his court.
After 58 matches, there are few surprises. With the quality of his backhand, Djokovic remains the player most capable of withstanding the relentless pressure from Nadal. For both players, the quality of serve has become an essential part of their success to offset physical decline. There will be constant tactical shifts and numerous drop shots.
What will also be interesting is how Djokovic handles the encounter mentally. Last year, he was shockingly flat and emotionless for more than two sets against Nadal until the third set when it was too late. But upon his victory against Matteo Berrettini on Wednesday he exploded in screams to his box after spending much of the encounter trying to keep his emotions under wraps. He has to find a balance between playing with his inner fire but also maintaining his composure through the numerous frustrations to come.
The consequences are clear, even though the outcome is a spot in a final that is far from a guaranteed win against one of the best players in the world, Alexander Zverev or Stefanos Tsitsipas. Nadal is two wins away from his 14th title and his 21st overall slam, breaking his tie with Roger Federer. Djokovic is searching for his second Roland Garros title and a 19th slam that would put him within one place of his two rivals. This will not last for ever. Nadal turned 35 this month, Djokovic was 34 last month. Any encounter could be the one that defines their position in history.
After his victory, Nadal was asked to explain the best and worst thing about facing Djokovic. “Best thing is you know that you need to play your best tennis,” he said. “It’s a match that you know what you have to do if you really want to keep going in the tournament.”
His explanation of the worst thing about facing Djokovic was nearly identical: “The negative thing, it’s difficult because you play against one of the best players of the history.” Then he shrugged. “That’s how it is.”