Djokovic: 'I lost to a better player today'

Defending champion bowed out to the 13-time winner, and applauded Nadal’s mentality in the key moments

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

The 59th chapter of the most prolific Open Era rivalry in men’s tennis came to a close in the wee hours of Wednesday morning in Paris, with Rafael Nadal emerging victorious over four sets in an instant classic against Novak Djokovic.

Just a few shots could have made the difference for the defending champion, who held two set points on his own serve deep in the fourth set with the momentum – and the cheering fans on Court Philppe-Chatrier – firmly behind him.

But Nadal was too good, not just in those set points but across several of the most important moments of the match on his way to a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4) victory.

“He showed why he's a great champion. You know, staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did,” a subdued Djokovic said during his post-match press conference.

“Congrats to him and his team. No doubt he deserved it… I lost to a better player today.”

Djokovic came into the match with a 30-28 lead in his head-to-head over Nadal, but trailing the 13-time Roland-Garros champion 2-7 on his happiest hunting grounds.

It’s a trend that has been slowly turning in Djokovic’s favour in recent years: the Serbian handed Nadal his only Roland-Garros quarter-final loss in 2015, and his only semi-final defeat just last year.

That he’s been able to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two times – in 2016 and 2021 – during the Nadal Era is a testament to his own tenacity and willingness to take on even the most difficult of challenges.

But he knows, perhaps better than anyone, just how quickly things can swing in Nadal’s favour on the terre battue.

“He was a better player, I think, in important moments,” Djokovic said. “I was gaining momentum as I was coming back in the second set, managed to win the second set, and I thought, ‘Okay, I'm back in the game’.

“But then he had another two, three fantastic games at the beginning of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level in those, particularly moments at the beginning of all sets, actually, except the fourth.

“I had my chances in the fourth. Served for the set, couple set points. Just one or two shots could have taken me into a fifth. Then it's really anybody's match.”

Djokovic has never been one to linger on the “what ifs” of a match, a quality that has led him to 20 Grand Slam titles and a nearly unshakeable grip on the ATP tour’s world No.1 ranking.  

But this was Nadal’s night, as the 13-time winner reestablished his grip on the terre battue and symbolically reclaimed Chatrier – if only for tonight.

Nadal advanced to a record-extending 15th Roland-Garros semi-final, where he will meet No.3 seed Alexander Zverev for a place in the final.

Djokovic, on the other hand, will get an early start to the grass-court season as he aims to put this defeat firmly behind him ahead of his next major title defence at Wimbledon.

Much ink has already been spilled in an attempt to sum up another classic Djokovic-Nadal clash – and what it could mean for their respective places in the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) debate.

But in the end, it was Djokovic who summed things up perfectly: “Had my chances. Didn't use them. That's it. Over four hours [of] battle, and I have to accept this defeat.”