It’s a testament to their greatness that whenever Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic line up in a major, where everyone projects they might meet, everyone starts girding up for it. Be it the quarters, semis, or finals, everyone knows to block out half a day and gather the necessary supplies. Because while it is almost always a spectacle and a display of a level of tennis that only these two have reached (and maybe one other guy), you know that it’s going to be a journey. You almost have to pack for it, or make sure all your snacks and hydration is within an arm’s reach. Sure, you can take a break, but do you really want to miss anything? Especially lately, every point seems to be some combination of high art, demolition derby, and chess.
Nadal and Djokovic met for the 59th time yesterday, with Nadal winning the French Open quarterfinal in four sets. It looked something like the inverse of last year’s meeting between the two at the same tournament, where they run head on into each other for two or three sets and then one wilts due to a lack of fitness from outside factors. In 2021, it was Nadal. Yesterday, Djokovic looked off in sets one and three, ever so slightly, thanks to not playing his normal schedule due to sickness, injury, and his own stupidity. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t able to hit the heights at varying points.
In the first set, Nadal couldn’t really have been more perfect. Where in the past he’s been gun shy about going to Djokovic’s backhand, as you basically can’t get it past him on that wing thanks to his gumby-in-humidity like flexibility and strength, Nadal’s forehand was a true boomstick, whether he was nuking it down the line to keep Djoker moving to his right (Djokovic’s forehand is more deadly when he’s opening it up by running around his backhand) or blasting it crosscourt into that backhand. Rarely in this rivalry has Nadal pushed Djokovic right off the court, but in the opening throes yesterday, he did.
But the wonderful thing about these two is that not only do they have the physical gifts of the gods, but they can think their way through problems that arise. And while it’s jarring to see Djokovic have to go completely red-line to stay in a match, as he usually can just efficiently brutalize opponents into errors and mistakes he can capitalize on, it’s certainly in his bag. Though he went down two breaks in the second, Djokovic started unleashing his forehand and going for broke with pretty much every shot. He didn’t have the tools to grind out with Nadal once again, so he was going to the fireworks factory with him. It produced some of the most giggle-worthy shot-making you’ll find in the sport, as Djokovic blasted 90 MPH forehands to within pubic hair’s distance of the lines.
But you can only push the car until it shakes for so long until something snaps or wheezes, and Djokovic couldn’t find the range in the third set that he had in the second, producing only seven winners as opposed to the 18 he managed in the second set. There was one last lunge from Djokovic in the 4th, and he served to send the match to the fifth, to which we always seemed destined. But as Nadal has done for some 17 years now, he just wills a break when he has to have it through nothing more than stubbornness. He broke to get to 4-5, and seemingly took Djokovic’s will with it. The Serbian deflated in the tiebreak.
That’s always the story with these two, it’s just a test of strength in every facet, and you watch them for four or five hours simply being unable to move the other more than an inch or two backwards before returning the favor. While both may have some weakness, and it’s not clear that they do, they’re all so minuscule that nothing can be picked at for too long. That was always their advantage against Roger Federer, in that as inspirational as Federer could be, there were obvious places you could go on him. Bring the ball up on his backhand, make him grind, make him defend, and he was more likely to spray something than the other two. There are no such avenues between Nadal and Djokovic. They’re just going to exchange rallies that would turn other players into a rueful puddle until one comes up with yet another shot of brilliance. And then they’ll do it on the next point, the next game, the next set.
On clay is the true torture chamber for both, and yet the greatest theater for us, because it makes it even more difficult to get a ball past them. They each have to construct points so intricately to move the other just enough that there’s just enough of a crack that they can hit, but only hit with some bludgeoning forehand or surgical backhand or drop shot or volley. Assuming the other doesn’t come up with some piece of miraculous defense and the whole process starts over.
And this very well may be it, depending on how the rest of the season goes. Nadal has alluded, ever so softly, that this might be his last French Open. Nadal’s body has always taken some level of constant maintenance to just be on the court, and there is no “light” day for him on the court. These days, managing his foot injury has apparently been laborious, and now that he sits atop the Grand Slam count and the first to 21, the day may be coming soon where he decides the constant therapy, treatment, exercise, and pain management isn’ t worth it anymore. No one could blame him.
He’ll take the sport’s greatest rivalry with him, that has lasted longer than any other and reached heights that all the other ones strain their necks to see. Nadal-Djokovic wasn’t so much the irresistible force and immovable object, because they were both of those things. It was more Hadron collider. Sometimes it was a slog. That six-hour Aussie Open final could be a hard watch at times. Sometimes it was sublime, like the third set of last year’s semifinal, where every point contained some wondrous winner. Sometimes it was about who would give out last, and sometimes it would be about who could just rise up for one more point than the other.
At least they’ve left a ton to remember and enjoy. Because we’ll never see it again.