Why Novak Djokovic's epic win over Rafael Nadal at the 2021 French Open is a career-defining triumph

Novak Djokovic celebrates beating Rafael Nadal at the 2021 French Open
Novak Djokovic celebrates beating Rafael Nadal at the 2021 French Open

Novak Djokovic outlasted Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of the 2021 French Open in one of the greatest matches in tennis history. The victory was undoubtedly one of the finest performances of Djokovic's glittering career, and it could go down as the legendary Serb's most significant victory when he ultimately retires.


In recent years, Djokovic has made it clear that finishing his career with the Grand Slam record is his biggest goal. Prior to Roland Garros 2021, the 34-year-old had won 18 Grand Slam titles, while great rivals Nadal and Roger Federer both sat on a record 20 Majors.

Djokovic and Nadal had each won two of the previous five Grand Slam events held, going back to the 2019 US Open. The Serb won the 2020 and 2021 Australian Open titles, while the Spaniard claimed the 2019 US Open and 2020 French Open crowns.

Dominic Thiem was the only player to break the dominance of the duo by winning the 2020 US Open for the given period.

Despite starting 2020 by securing the year's first Major and winning his first 26 matches, the COVID-19 shortened season proved to be frustrating for Djokovic. Firstly, Wimbledon - where he was a two-time defending champion - was canceled.

Djokovic was then infamously defaulted for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball at the US Open, which he was a heavy favorite to win. At the rescheduled 2020 French Open in October, Nadal steamrolled the Serb 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 to inflict his heaviest-ever Major final defeat.

This left Djokovic on 17 Grand Slam titles, three behind Nadal and Federer, meaning he would require one of his best ever seasons to catch his rivals in 2021.

The match

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal shake hands after their classic 2021 Roland Garros semifinal
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal shake hands after their classic 2021 Roland Garros semifinal

As mentioned, Djokovic had reduced the deficit to Nadal and Federer in the Grand Slam race to two by this year's edition of Roland Garros.

The 34-year-old won the Belgrade Open ATP 250 clay-court tournament in the week before the French Open. Prior to that, Nadal beat Djokovic for the fifth straight time on clay with a 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 triumph in the final of the Italian Open in Rome.

Djokovic overcame two serious tests against Italian opponents to reach the last four in Paris. He came back from two sets down to beat Lorenzo Musetti in the fourth round before surviving a tough four-set quarterfinal battle with Matteo Berrettini.

The only set Nadal dropped en route to the semifinals was in his quarterfinal win over Diego Schwartzman.

The Spaniard surged to a 5-0 lead against Djokovic before taking the opening set 6-3. Djokovic responded by winning the second set by the same scoreline after saving five break points in his final two service games.

The epic 93-minute third set was an all-time great set, and perhaps one of the most important ever played. Djokovic was twice pegged back after being up a break, including when serving for the set at 5-4.

The World No. 1 then crucially saved a set point serving at 5-6 with a backhand drop shot down-the-line before taking the tiebreak 7-4. With Nadal hampered by a foot injury and fatigue towards the end of the contest, Djokovic came from 2-0 down to win the fourth set 6-2 and seal a monumental win.


The significance for Novak Djokovic's career and legacy

Defeating 13-time French Open champion Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier is widely considered to be the toughest challenge in the history of tennis. After the match, Djokovic aptly compared the feat to climbing Mount Everest.

Nadal had lost at Roland Garros just twice previously: to Djokovic in the 2015 quarterfinals and Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. The Spaniard performed at a higher level, though, in this match than in those other two defeats, up until he was physically compromised in the closing stages.

Conquering a strong version of Nadal at the Major where he has been near invincible (105-3 record), and in a round he had never fallen in, is remarkable in itself. The fact Nadal demolished Djokovic in the 2020 final and won their previous five matches on clay makes the achievement all the more impressive.

Djokovic went on to defeat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final after trailing by two sets to love to win his second French Open title. This made the 34-year-old the only player in the Open Era to complete a double career Grand Slam (winning all four Majors at least twice).

Stefanos Tsitsipas and Novak Djokovic after the 2021 French Open final
Stefanos Tsitsipas and Novak Djokovic after the 2021 French Open final

The Serb's Paris triumph moved him to within one Grand Slam title of Nadal and Federer on 19. He then tied his great rivals on 20 Majors with victory at Wimbledon, before losing to Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final to fall one win short of a Calendar Grand Slam. Djokovic is the only player since Rod Laver to win the year's first three Grand Slam titles.

Had Nadal come out on top in their incredible semifinal, the Spaniard would have likely won a 14th Roland Garros title and record 21st Major. This would have left Djokovic three behind in the Grand Slam race on 18, making his task of reeling in his greatest rival far more challenging.

Daniil Medvedev won his first Grand Slam, Alexander Zverev reached the semifinals in two Majors, and Stefanos Tsitsipas reached a Major final to strengthen their positions as Major contenders this year. Meanwhile, Nadal winning at least one more French Open cannot be ruled out.

Djokovic would have needed to win at least another four Grand Slam titles to surpass Nadal, which would be no foregone conclusion at age 34 and with his younger rivals improving.

As it is, though, the World No. 1 is in pole position in the race as he approaches 2022 as the favorite to win at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.

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