Novak, the man who made it hardest for Nadal
During his 10-title reign, nobody ever made it more difficult for Rafael Nadal than the great Novak Djokovic.
It is difficult to talk about ‘rivalries’ when you’ve turned Philippe-Chatrier Court into your own monopoly board. During his rampage to ‘La Decima’ at Roland-Garros, Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer 15 sets to four, David Ferrer 12 sets to one and Andy Murray six sets to nil - with the Scot probably happy to concede he was lucky to get nil.
Yet there was one man who, like the bloke in the Chumbawumba song, got knocked down only to get back up again - and again - until he finally KO'ed the King of Clay. Which is why as he savours number 10, even Nadal himself would doubtless tonight raise an eyebrow of salute to an absent friend, the guy who pushed him harder than anyone else during that push for 10 - a certain Novak Djokovic.
That’s also why there felt a particular poignancy about Djokovic’s quarter-final exit at the hands of Dominic Thiem this year. It didn’t just stem from the shocking nature of the reigning champion’s third-set capitulation but also lay in the thought that this year’s tournament had been denied another episode of its most compelling duelling; Nadal had been set to play his Serbian rival for the eighth time here in the semi-finals.
Such was the comprehensive manner in which Djokovic was dethroned by young Thiem, it sparked the widespread discussion about whether we would ever again see the Serb return to his world-beating finest.
Funnily enough, that same discussion had arisen here in 2015 when Djokovic had finally crushed Nadal in the quarter-finals, handing the Spaniard only his second-ever defeat at Roland-Garros and his first and only straight sets hammering in any five-set match on clay.
It felt like a seismic moment. Nobody ever did this to Nadal in his Paris kingdom. Okay, so Robin Soderling had had his moment in the sun in 2009 but that was always considered a freakish one-off. Djokovic’s victory, in contrast, always looked as if it was coming, the stuff of try-try-and-try again legend.
Basically, the Serb had lost six previous times to Nadal here, sometimes getting destroyed but gradually getting closer and closer to solving the Nadal puzzle as he blossomed into the world No.1.
From their very first match here 11 years ago, Djokovic never stopped believing. On that occasion in 2006, the teenage Djokovic, in just his second French Open, met the champion in the quarter-finals and was adamant that he had been “in control” until, struck down by a back injury, he had to withdraw.
A couple of straightforward victories for Nadal followed in 2007 and 2008 but then we skip to 2012 by which time, Djokovic had morphed into a commanding world No.1 and the nature of their Roland-Garros duels became very different.
Seeking to become the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously, Djokovic seemed to be on the way when, although two sets down, he won the third and earned a break in the fourth, winning eight games in a row. Nadal was on the ropes - and then the rains came. When play resumed on Monday, the refreshed Spaniard ended up winning in four.
The following year, Djokovic came even closer but still lost a match which could still be argued to be the best ever seen at Roland-Garros and, actually, one of the finest anywhere.
Did four-and-a-half hours of incredible combat turn on one moment? Djokovic was serving at 4-3 ahead in the final set when all he needed was to swat away a simple winner at deuce but in doing so, he toppled over the net, gifting Nadal the point and soon after the break. Nadal won 9-7 in the fifth.
That one was, Djokovic admitted, the hardest defeat to take but he had another go in 2014, winning the first set of another final only for Nadal to prove the master again at the crucial moments, winning his ninth title in all.
That’s why the Serb’s 2015 win felt so monumental. He did not just beat Nadal, he outclassed him and, listening to Djokovic afterwards, you would have thought it was the high-water mark of his entire career.
“Complete person, very satisfied on and off the court, in my performance. Everything’s coming together in my life and I’m experiencing probably the pinnacle of my career, of my life,” Djokovic said afterwards. Yes, that’s what beating Nadal at Roland-Garros felt like!
Now Djokovic may wish to recall that moment as he seeks to get back on the long, hard road to No.1 again after his difficult fortnight here.
On that day when he had pummelled Nadal, someone asked him if he felt it might have been the moment that decline had set in for the nine-time champion.
“I understand that people are questioning his game now and where he's going to be but he's somebody that understands what he needs to do when he's feeling down to come back and fight to be the best," Djokovic said. “So I don't think that this is a big deal. He’s 29 and still has years in front of him, and I'm sure he's going to bounce back and play very strong.”
Djokovic got it absolutely right - and the question now is whether he can respond in the same way. Doubtless, Rafa himself would never write off the man who did more than anyone to try to stop his rampage to 10.