5 intriguing Rafael Nadal - Novak Djokovic battles that have defined their careers
India vs Pakistan, Real Madrid vs Barcelona, Lin Dan vs Lee Chong Wei, Senna vs Prost, Frazier vs Ali, Lakers vs Celtics, Red Sox vs Yankees and then there is Nadal vs Djokovic.
These are arguably some of the best rivalries that sport has ever witnessed and ardent fans have felt the pressure of these match-ups. When it comes to modern day tennis, perhaps the Rafa-Novak rivalry stands out as the distinct representative match-up that tennis fans all over the planet want to see.
The 44th installment of their celebrated rivalry was played on Wednesday afternoon with too much on stake. Ironically, 43 matches ago they met for the first time in the QFs of the 2006 French Open. Since then, the two gladiators have met in numerous encounters redefining tennis as a war of skill, fortitude, physical brutality and mental toughness. Djokovic was finally able to shake the monkey off his back as he thwarted Nadal in straight sets 7-5, 6-3, 6-1. It was Nadal’s second defeat in 72 matches in Paris and his record now stands at 93-2 in best-of-5 set matches on clay.
Although the match-up on Wednesday did not live upto everyone’s expectation, here is a look at 5 unforgettable matches in the Rafa-Nole rivalry that have not only gone onto outline their individual careers but also rewritten the history books of Tennis.
2008 Masters Series Hamburg SF - Nadal def. Djokovic 7-5, 2-6, 6-2
Coming into the match: Djokovic has stunned the tennis world by winning his 1st Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open defeating defending champion and World No.1 Federer in the SFs and getting the better of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the finals. He had also won 2 Masters titles coming into this match, Indian Wells & Rome Masters. He was the in-form player coming into the Hamburg Masters.
Nadal has also made a steady start to the season reaching the SFs in Melbourne (l. to Tsonga), reaching the finals in Miami (l. to Davydenko). During the clay-court season, Nadal had won Monte-Carlo Masters and Barcelona. Prior to this match, Djokovic had won their only meeting of the season in the SFs of the Indian Wells Masters (6-3, 6-2). Nadal was leading the head-to-head 6-3 till date. The World No. 2 ranking was on the line in this match.
Rafael Nadal came out on top in the battle for the No. 2 position in the ATP Rankings with a 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 victory over Novak Djokovic in a colossal battle which lasted over three hours and three minutes. It was the greatest match of their rivalry to date. In a first set featuring five breaks of serve under the roof on Centre Court at Rothenbaum, Djokovic began in scorching form, breaking Nadal early to lead 3-0. Nadal come back roaring to level the match at 3-3.
Nadal seemed to have got the better of Novak and the Spaniard broke back again to lead 5-4. With Nadal serving for the first set, Djokovic began to go for his shots and again leveled the match at 5-5. Nadal started to produce exceptional tennis and again broke Djokovic for a 6-5 lead. This time he did not falter and took the opening set which lasted 72 minutes. Djokovic was much more aggressive in the second set and was able to edge out a break of serve to lead 3-2. With Nadal serving to stay in the set at 2-5, Novak’s baseline intimidation finally got the better of Rafa as he surrendered the set to the Serb. Djokovic’s momentum was short-lived as Rafa pounced back and immediately earned a break of serve to lead 1-0. Djokovic’s hopes began to dissolve and Rafa seized the opportunity to win the match after converting on his 5th match point and thus holding onto the No.2 ranking.
Reverberation: Nadal went on to avenge his 2007 Hamburg Masters defeat to Roger Federer in the final (Federer had ended his record 81-match win streak on clay in 2007). Furthermore Nadal went to win both French Open & Wimbledon (first man to win the Channel Slam since Bjorn Borg in 1980) and capped off his greatest summer till date by winning the Olympic Gold in Beijing. Nadal also enjoyed a 32-match win streak in 2008 starting in Hamburg, which is longest winning streak across 3 surfaces in the Open-Era. Djokovic also managed to have a solid season and finished the season by winning his 1st Masters Cup/ATP World Tour Finals.
Honorable mention: A year later the two met in the SFs of the Madrid Masters. It was a melodramatic battle which Rafa managed to win 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(9) after saving 3 match points. This match had held the record for the longest best-of-3 sets match in the Open-Era at 4 hrs and 3 minutes until the record was bettered by the 4hr and 26 min marathon between Federer and Del Potro in the SFs of the London Olympics in 2012
2010 US Open Final - Nadal def. Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2
Coming into the match: Nadal was perhaps playing the best tennis of his career having being undefeated on clay (22-0) winning Monte Carlo, Rome & Madrid Masters. He went on regain the World No.1 ranking from Federer after winning Roland Garros for a 5th time before becoming only the 2nd man after Bjorn Borg to win multiple Channel Slams. He entered the US Open trying to complete the Career Grand Slam.
Djokovic had struggled this season winning only 1 title (Dubai) and lost his No.2 ranking. He had also ceased his partnership with coach Todd Martin who had tried to change Novak’s Service motion. He had beaten Roger Federer in the SFs after saving 2 Match Points. Nadal was on a 3 match losing streak against Djokovic going into this match.
World No.1 Rafa Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 and became the 7th man to complete the career Grand Slam (youngest to accomplish the feat in the Open Era at 24 years old). He also became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win 3 straight Grand Slam events in the same season. Though rain delayed their meeting by a day, Nadal made a confident start to the championship match Monday as he broke Djokovic.
Though the Serbian drew level at 2-2, Nadal regained the lead as he converted on his sixth break point opportunity of the next game. The pair was locked at 4-4, 30/30, in the second set when rain suspended play for one hour and 57 minutes. When they returned, Djokovic broke the Spaniard for a third time to force a set off of Nadal for the first time during the 2010 US Open.
Djokovic was unable to maintain the momentum, however, with Nadal continually putting pressure on his serve. The top seed created 16 break point chances through the final two sets and converted on three of them (6 for 26 during the match). He claimed the victory as his opponent’s return sailed wide on championship point after three hours and 43 minutes.
Reverberation: Nadal went on to clinch the Year End No.1 for the 2nd time in his career and enjoyed arguably his greatest season (71-10; 7 titles). But on the other hand, it was the start of Djokovic’s ascendance to the top of Men’s’ Tennis as went on to win his 1st Davis Cup title with Serbia and would start one of the most impressive winning streaks in the Open-Era (43 matches unbeaten run).