Djokovic needs passion with precision to navigate Nadal’s French Open grip

World No 1 was muted as he tanked the 2020 final but must not go overboard with emotion or he risks drowning in the frustrations the King of Clay will throw his way

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.

Rafael Nadal celebrates crushing Novak Djokovic in their last meeting at the French Open – the 2020 final.
Rafael Nadal celebrates crushing Novak Djokovic in their last meeting at the French Open – the 2020 final. Photograph: Michel Euler/AP

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.

Sign up to The Recap, our weekly email of editors’ picks.

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.”

Contributor

Tumaini Carayol

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Novak Djokovic reaches French Open final with epic win over Rafael Nadal
Novak Djokovic sealed an incredible 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-2 win against the 13-times champion to book a place in the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas

Tumaini Carayol

11, Jun, 2021 @10:21 PM

Article image
Novak Djokovic rallies to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in epic French Open final
Novak Djokovic has won his second French Open, and 19th grand slam in total, with a thrilling 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win

Tumaini Carayol

13, Jun, 2021 @5:24 PM

Article image
Djokovic shuts out French Open silence and boos to set up Nadal semi-final
Novak Djokovic moved into the semi-finals at Roland Garros after beating Matteo Berrettini 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 after France’s curfew

Tumaini Carayol

09, Jun, 2021 @10:15 PM

Article image
Rafael Nadal demolishes Novak Djokovic to win 13th French Open title
Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 to equal Roger Federer’s record haul of 20 grand slam singles titles in a high-quality final with a strangely lopsided scoreline

Kevin Mitchell

11, Oct, 2020 @4:07 PM

Article image
Battling Norrie unable to derail the Nadal French Open juggernaut
Cameron Norrie’s French Open run came to an end as he lost in straight sets to Rafael Nadal, on a day when Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer also reached round four

Tumaini Carayol

05, Jun, 2021 @6:25 PM

Article image
Nadal and Djokovic see off spirited challenges to reach French Open final
Rafael Nadal will face Novak Djokovic in his 13th French Open final after the top two seeds won their semi-finals on Friday

Kevin Mitchell

09, Oct, 2020 @10:58 PM

Article image
Rafael Nadal survives Schwartzman fight to make French Open last four
Rafael Nadal is through to the French Open semi-finals after defeating a spirited Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0

Tumaini Carayol

09, Jun, 2021 @6:16 PM

Article image
Rafael Nadal wins in straight sets as he launches French Open defence
Rafael Nadal, in search of his 14th Paris crown, beat Australia’s Alex Popyrin 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (3) while Ashleigh Barty, the women’s No 1, won in three sets

Tumaini Carayol

01, Jun, 2021 @7:43 PM

Article image
French Open 2021: Nadal beats Norrie, Krejcikova shocks Svitolina – as it happened
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal eased to straight-sets wins while Barbora Krejcikova shocked fifth seed Elina Svitolina and Iga Swiatek marched on

Luke McLaughlin

05, Jun, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
Novak Djokovic beats Rafael Nadal in French Open 2021 semi-final – as it happened
Game-by-game report: Novak Djokovic inflicted just the third loss of Rafael Nadal’s career at the French Open

Tom Lutz

11, Jun, 2021 @9:38 PM