After a couple of false starts and a few setbacks, when Rafael Nadal finally began his 2013 season, he wasn’t exactly expected to scale back to the heights from which he was forced to fall down. A lot of challenges awaited him and with niggling injuries threatening the very continuity of his career, 2013 looked to be a difficult year for him to make a comeback.
In contrast, Novak Djokovic had had the perfect season in 2012, carrying the momentum forward in the new season. He was the no.1, a position that he was determined to hold on to – fending off any and all potential contenders – starting with emphatic victories at the start of 2013, in the Australian summer, Down Under.
Call it fortuitous then that the first clash of the year between these two didn’t happen until the clay season, in the Monte Carlo final. Nole drew first blood taking Nadal – and everyone – by surprise, defeating the defending champion for the first time in eight years, in straight sets. The abrupt way in which Nole had stalled the 46-match unbeaten streak of Nadal on clay brought to the fore the ever-lingering question about him being able to defend his French Open title. The sedateness of Nadal in the match was also uncanny and tilted the balance in favour of the Serbian as the favourite for the French Open.
But if one expected the Spaniard to surrender his realm at Roland Garros in the same manner as he had done at Monte Carlo, one probably didn’t know much about Nadal. Where the tone of the Monte Carlo final seemed to be all about Djokovic, the 2013 Roland Garros semi-final saw one of the best performances by Rafa – under pressure, on clay no less.
When the world no.1 took on the world no.3 for a place in the final, anticipation soared and imaginations ran amok. The previous year’s final had gone almost to the wire, with Nadal edging out Nole in a tight four-setter that had to be postponed by a day because of rain interruptions at the most crucial juncture of the match.
The two were the top seeded players then, whose fortunes couldn’t have been any dissimilar this year, at the very same tournament. Where the Serb had regained the top spot, after losing it briefly to Federer, to finish his second consecutive year as the world no.1, Nadal was forced to take a complete backseat from tennis after being upset by Czech Lukas Rosol in the Wimbledon second round.
It was the moment of truth for both players and both of them were prepared to give it all what it took in the semi-final. For over four overs both toiled and wrested against each other, not letting any point slip by; the scales never balanced for any one player. But in the end, despite the Serb’s ceaseless perseverance, it was Nadal who outlasted him, leaving him in the dust – 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 9-7.
2-1 the season’s head-to-head read in favour of the Spaniard. But their rivalry wasn’t done for the year with yet another meeting drawn between them at the semi-finals of Rogers Cup, Montreal. The change in surface gave Djokovic an advantage over Nadal even though pressure was still on him to get through to the final. In comparison, having no points to defend, Nadal seemed to be coming into the tournament with a relaxed frame of mind.
There however was no dearth of competitiveness between the two when they faced in the highly awaited semi-final. As the defending champion, Djokovic was expected to put some tough resistance and he did so too pushing Rafa to his limit. Yet again in the third set, Nole’s doggedness fell short leaving him on the losing side for the third time against Nadal who went on to compile a perfect American summer winning the troika of tournaments at Montreal, Cincinnati and Flushing Meadows.
The last saw one more addition to their chapter of rivalry though this time round, neither was fighting to defend their previous year’s spoils. A four-setter this one, the match missed going to the distance partly due to Nadal’s excellent muting of Djokovic’s defence and partly because of the latter’s inability to come up with a fitting aggressive response to match the Spaniard. Eventually, it was the Serb who blinked first, giving Nadal his second major title of the year and allowing him to come a few more steps closer to wrenching away his world no.1 title.
The wave of the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry however hadn’t really crested and it was in the indoor hard-court season that the momentum shifted towards the Serb. In an indoor season that saw Nole being exceptionally invulnerable, the China Open final, at Beijing, saw him defeat Nadal in straight sets without giving away a single break point.
Then came the final match of the World Tour Finals, the final match of the tennis season. Although by then Nadal had conquered the top ranking spot for himself, Djokovic ensured that the final’s title remained in his hands. 6-3, 6-4, Djokovic defeated Nadal and in the process not only extended his indoor hard-court season wins to an impressive 22-0 record, but also spilt his head-to-head with Nadal for the season to 3-3.
Of all the rivalries that the season brought forth, perhaps there was none as complete or fulfilling as the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry. Almost spanning the entire season, it was a rivalry that equally bifurcated their strengths and their weaknesses that made it even more difficult for their fans to predict a clear and straight-forward favourite between the two in the process.