Nadal v Djokovic: Things we learned

 - Stephanie Livaudais

Most prolific rivalry in men’s tennis produced another classic, with the Spaniard coming through in four

Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2022, quarter-final© Julien Crosnier/FFT

And breathe.

This match was billed as a must-watch quarter-final blockbuster since the draw was first made, and it more than lived up to the hype.

Over four hours and 12 minutes of battling tennis on Court Philippe-Chatrier, 13-time Roland-Garros champion Rafael Nadal emerged victorious against nemesis Novak Djokovic, defeating the defending champion 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4).

Here’s what we learned from the latest chapter of the most prolific rivalry in men’s tennis – one that started right here, 16 years ago at Roland-Garros.

No secrets between these two

When two players have faced each other as many times as these two – an Open Era-leading 59 times and counting – you would think there would be no secrets between them.

They’ve now met 10 times at Roland-Garros alone, and their head-to-head here is dotted with matches widely regarded as some of the best to ever be played on this surface. Six-time champion Bjorn Borg called their 2013 semi-final the best clay-court match he’d ever seen, a  6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7 win for Nadal.

And while it may be tinged with recency bias, last year’s semi-final battle was also an instant classic, with Djokovic rallying from a set down to charge past the 13-time champion 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 on his way to the title.

But such is the mark of these generational talents and all-time legends, always-improving and ever-evolving, that even now they can still find a way to surprise each other.

There were shades of that 2021 meeting all over this Chatrier clash – especially after Nadal stormed through the first set and Djokovic, like last year, raised his level and began to claw his way back.

This time, however, Nadal raised his own level to match Djokovic, putting on a show en route to his 110th victory at Roland-Garros.

Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2022, quarter-final© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

History written on Chatrier

Stade Roland-Garros has bore witness to countless historic moments, legendary feats and heavyweight clashes during this tournament’s 131-year tenure as the crowning jewel of the French tennis calendar.

But there’s literally never been a match-up of this calibre before, and not at any other tournament either, at least not in the Open Era.

This was the first meeting between two players who own at least 20 Grand Slams singles titles each – Nadal with 21, after lifting his men's all-time record-setting trophy at the Australian Open, and Djokovic tied for second-most after winning his 20th major at Wimbledon last year.

It’s also the first time that two players with more than 300 Grand Slam wins – Djokovic with 327 and Nadal with 302 coming into the match – and 1,000 career match wins – Nadal with 1,055 and Djokovic with 1,005 – have pitted such incredible resumes against each other.

Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roland-Garros 2022©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

Blast from the past, glimpse at the future

Getting here wasn’t easy for either player, as both have taken somewhat parallel and arduous journeys into this blockbuster quarter-final clash.

For Djokovic, who was unable to play a consistent schedule before the clay-court season, it was a matter of regaining his match fitness in time for his Grand Slam title defence.

And for Nadal, it was a race against time to be fit enough to launch a campaign for his 14th Coupe des Mousquetaires, having suffered a flare-up of his chronic foot injury weeks after recovering from a broken rib earlier in the season.

Things didn’t get any easier in Paris, where first Djokovic and then Nadal got a blast from the past and a glimpse at tennis’ future all at once: both players had to fight past an opponent that was currently working with one of their previous long-time coaches.

Djokovic didn’t drop a set in four matches heading into the quarter-finals but he was pushed the most by 24-year-old Alex Molcan, who added Marian Vajda to his team earlier this month. He needed a tiebreak to close out his 6-2, 6-3, 7-6(4) victory over Molcan in the second round.

Nadal, on the other hand, needed over four hours and 20 minutes to pass his toughest test of the tournament in the previous round against Felix Auger-Aliassime, who hired Toni Nadal last year.

After his gruelling 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 win over the 21-year-old Canadian, Nadal had racked up 10 hours and 43 minutes on court at Roland-Garros – exactly two hours and 30 minutes more than Djokovic.

First-set factor

Of all the mind-boggling numbers littering the stats sheets in the build-up to this clash, one particular stat stood out: the winner of the opening set has won 50 of their previous 58 matches.

One notable exception: last year’s classic semi-final, their most recent meeting.

That made the opening exchanges tonight all the more crucial. By the second point of the match, the pair had set the tone with a lengthy rally, before Nadal broke Djokovic off a missed netcord to take the early lead. It took Nadal 35 minutes just to make it 4-1 with a crushing forehand for another break of serve.

Nadal wrapped up the crucial first set in style, but the battle was just getting started. The Spaniard broke to start the second set again, and it took him a brutal 13-minutes to convert his seventh break chance – an ominous sign as the world No.1 began to impose his own game.

Djokovic tinkered with his return position during the second set, and turned around a 0-3 double-break deficit by relying on his rock-solid backhand – a shot that historically rarely gets shaken by Nadal’s heavy topspin forehand.

The Serbian attacked his opponent's second serves, and reaped the rewards – in the first set, Nadal won 80% (8/10) of second serve points, and in the second Djokovic allowed him only 33% (4/12) of those.

While the first set took Nadal 51 minutes, the second set clocked in at nearly an hour and 30 minutes. By the time it was over, it was suddenly Djokovic in the driver’s seat – and alarm bells were ringing for the 13-time champion.

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, quart de finale, Roland-Garros 2022©Julien Crosnier / FFT

Masterclass under the lights

“Nadal, an underdog at Roland-Garros? That’s where we are now,” said analyst Jon Wertheim  during a Tennis Channel broadcast. “This is rare, like a shooting star.”

From Nadal’s form, to his foot injury, to his time spent on court and his 30-28 head-to-head against Djokovic – all of it added up to bad news for the soon-to-be 36-year-old.

Would Nadal be able to maintain this level much longer?

Locked into battle at two sets apiece, Nadal brushed aside any concerns as he reeled off eight of the first 10 points of the third set, going up 2-0. He re-established his dominance with another three games on the trot to make it 5-1, and cooled off his opponent’s momentum as he took the set 6-2.

But this time, it was Djokovic who started the set with a break, deploying a smooth drop shot for a 2-0 lead. For most of the fourth set, it seemed that lone break would prove decisive, as Djokovic closed in on the finish-line with two set points serving at 5-4.

The prospect of going into another fifth set against his rival seemed to jolt Nadal back to life. He honed in on Djokovic’s second serve, and broke back with a flurry of forehands to level the score, from 2-5 down. The Spaniard raised his level again in the tiebreak, finally putting some distance between himself and Djokovic as Chatrier roared in delight.

Djokovic saved three match points, but couldn’t hold off Nadal after one last scintillating backhand up the line closed out the victory.

Another twist awaits in the semi-finals

Nadal’s next opponent – yes, this wasn’t the final! – will be a familiar face, but probably not the one he was expecting.

It won’t be the much-hyped 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz– but his vanquisher, No.3 seed Alexander Zverev, who halted the teen’ dream run with a commanding 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(7) victory.

The No.5 seed owns the 6-3 lead over Zverev in their overall head-to-head, and 4-1 on clay courts. But with Zverev relatively fresher after needing only three hours and 20 minutes against Alcaraz, Nadal will have to work overtime with his team to be back to full strength on Thursday.