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 - Simon Cambers

Join us on this tactical deep dive into the 58th edition of this epic rivalry

Rafael Nadal meets Novak Djokovic for the 58th time on Friday in what’s being billed as the final before the final.

Djokovic leads 29-28 but Nadal has won their past two meetings – both on clay – in the final here last year and in Rome last month. Here’s how the match might pan out.


Djokovic needs a good start

Everyone knows Nadal’s record at Roland-Garros is ridiculous – 105-2, with 13 titles. But the Spaniard is also a stunning front-runner in Grand Slams, with a record of 251-5 when winning the first set.

Since 2013, he has only lost twice in a Grand Slam after winning the first set – the most recent coming against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Australian Open this year.

On clay, it has never happened so Djokovic needs a good start to establish a foothold in the match and put some doubt in Nadal’s mind.

He also needs to erase the memory of last year’s final, when he lost the first set 6-0. Of course, Nadal dropped the first set to Djokovic in the 2014 final and then won the next three, so it’s not a sure-fire method.

Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2021, quarter-final© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

The drop shot can be a key factor

On clay, the drop shot is the perfect weapon, not only a shot to win a point outright but also one to plant a seed in the opponent’s mind that it’s possible at any time.

Nadal, who used it eight times in his win over Diego Schwartzman, tends to play them only when he’s well inside the court, and usually on the forehand side.

Djokovic probably has more disguise and almost always plays it on the backhand, down the line. But coach and Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone said Djokovic, who hit 15 drop shots against Matteo Berrettini, must not repeat his mistakes from last year’s final.

“It was a little confusing at the beginning,” he said. “He hit a million drop shots at first. I don't know what he was doing. To me, that just means maybe he wasn't as confident as he should have been.”

The Djokovic return versus the Nadal serve

By common consensus, Djokovic is the best returner in the men’s game and perhaps of all time (though Jimmy Connors might have something to say about that).

He will need to be on his game, though, because if Nadal serves well, he could find life difficult. The Spaniard has been winning 80 per cent of his first-serve points on average to Djokovic's 79 per cent of (both very high), while the Serb shades things on second serve points won, at 57 per cent to 53 per cent.

Variety, therefore, could be key and Nadal will probably look to use his serve from the deuce court, out to the forehand of Djokovic, to keep him off balance.

First-strike tennis key to the outcome

It is a common misconception to think that Nadal generally grinds down his opponents. Of course, he does make life difficult for them physically, but it’s in the ability to strike first where he really dominates.

In last year’s final, he won 53 points to Djokovic’s 25 in rallies of 0-4 shots. He is so often able to get the first ball after the return on his forehand, from where he can do all kinds of damage. Against Schwartzman in the quarters, he won that category by 61-34. If Djokovic can nullify that advantage, he will be in the match.