The Rafa-Novak rivalry: A 14-year history at Roland-Garros

 - Alex Sharp

They've been squaring off in the French capital since 2006. Here's a look at their seven previous meetings on Parisian clay.

Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, kids' day Roland Garros 2018© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Roland-Garros 2006 was the arena for the first instalment of Nadal v Djokovic.

Since then their riveting and frequently ridiculous rivalry has amounted to 56 history-defining bouts.

World No.1 Novak Djokovic leads 29-26, the most tour-level match-ups in the Open Era, however, Rafael Nadal edges their major battles 9-6.

Sunday’s Roland-Garros men’s final is their ninth in Slam silverware showdowns (they're tied at 4-4), and it’s incredibly tough to describe the significance of the outcome without a huge scoop of hyperbole.

If Nadal wins, it’s Roland-Garros Coupe des Mousquetaires No.13, which would draw the Spaniard level with Roger Federer at the top of the men's all-time major list on 20. 

Should Djokovic reign supreme, the Serbian will close the gap to Nadal to one Grand Slam. 

Let’s take a look back at their seven previous tussles on the terre battue of Roland-Garros.

2006 quarter-finals: Nadal wins 6-4, 6-4 ret.

It certainly wasn’t a classic but a defiant Djokovic was adamant he was in with a shot prior to picking up a lower back injury.

"At the start he was not so comfortable," Djokovic said. "I think I had control of the match. I just didn't finish it the right way.

"For sure he's the best on this surface, but he's not unbeatable. I think I could win today. He didn't know how to play against me." 

Nadal, who lifted his second Roland-Garros title that summer had his say; "Oh, yes? So he had the problem in the first game or what?"

2007 semi-finals: Nadal wins 7-5, 6-4, 6-2

Djokovic reeled in a rapid 5-2 start from Nadal to level the first set. But that’s as good as it got for the then 20-year-old Serb.

The Spaniard had all the answers en route to a third successive title triumph.

“He's the best player in the world on this surface," Djokovic said of Nadal. "Today was my first semi-final of a Grand Slam ever in my career, and I think I played really well. I have time, I'm only 20. I'm really happy with my performance."

There was plenty of time for Novak to taste major success. He soon did in Melbourne…

2008 semi-finals: Nadal wins 6-4, 6-2, 7-6(3)

Djokovic, with his Australian Open triumph over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, was threatening to dissolve Nadal’s 26-0 Roland-Garros record, having broken his major duck. 

Not quite. It was another year, another semi-final and another step to Nadal’s trademark bite of the trophy on the podium. It was simply a brutal performance from the Spaniard.

2012 final: Nadal wins 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5

Djokovic was THE man on tour. Wimbledon 2011, US Open 2011 and Australian 2012 had all bolstered his trophy cabinet, with a triumvirate of crushing wins over Nadal in the finals.

Could he hold all four majors simultaneously?

What a final that was! Rain interrupted with Djokovic a break up in the fourth set. However, Nadal had other ideas and roared back to lift a record seventh title on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros 2012 final© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

2013 semi-finals: Nadal wins 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7

A heavyweight clash which deserved to be a final. 

Nadal failed to serve out the fourth set, Djokovic held a 4-2 lead in the decider, but ultimately the left-hander’s 65 scorching winners overpowered the Serbian.

"It's been an unbelievable match to be part of, but all I can feel now is disappointment. That's it. I congratulate him, because that's why he's ruling Roland-Garros for many years,” stated Djokovic.

A relieved Nadal responded; “He's a great champion and he will win here at Roland Garros one day, I'm sure.” Rafa was right…

2014 final: Nadal wins 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4

It looked like Djokovic might finally have the answers. He ruled Rafa in Rome just prior to Paris and was on a roll in their head-to-head. 

Djokovic was in control in the blazing sunshine, but after the ‘King of clay’ stole the second set, it was one way traffic. 

"In matches like this every moment is crucial. Playing against Novak is always a big challenge, I had lost against him the last four times,” reflected Nadal, lifting an unprecedented ninth Roland-Garros crown.

“It is incredible to win this tournament nine times," Djokovic said. "It was an emotional day. I have tried with all my power, my strength, my capacities but Rafa was the strongest on court.”

2015 quarter-finals: Djokovic wins 7-5, 6-3, 6-1

It had to happen at some point. Djokovic finally outmanoeuvred Nadal to become just the second player (after Robin Soderling in 2009) to prevail past the Spaniard at Roland-Garros.

It certainly wasn’t a happy 29th birthday for the defending champion. Djokovic was in imperious form, arriving on court on a 26-match winning streak, he was simply ruthless.

“It's definitely a big win, a match that I will remember for a long time," added Djokovic afterwards. "You go through more emotions than for any other match. Of course, playing against Rafa in Roland Garros, it's a special thing. It's a special match."

Stan Wawrinka bulldozed the Serb in the final, but Djokovic eventually clinched his elusive Roland-Garros title in 2016.