By Nick Carter
On January 29th 2022, it was ten years since one of the best tennis matches I have ever seen. I don’t know if it is the best I have ever seen, that is something I’m still reflecting on. However, it is a match that will always stay with me. On the morning of Sunday January 29th 2012, a 17-year-old British A-Level student woke up, excited to watch the tennis. He’d missed the Djokovic vs Murray epic the morning before due to having a driving lesson, but by and large he’d been catching the main coverage of the tournament on Eurosport UK before revising for his exams. He had very much enjoyed seeing Victoria Azarenka winning her first major the day before. Now it was time for the best two male players in the world to do battle, and he would be watching.
If you hadn’t guessed yet, I was that 17-year-old. What ensued was pure tennis magic for me. I had never seen a contest like this before. Both men were hitting the ball so hard, for so long, and were able to counter each other. Either man could win if a rally became extended. It was a pure, physical battle and I loved it. I didn’t notice how long it lasted, and I didn’t care. I just wanted it to keep going, marvelling that these two were performing so well despite being on court for so long.
At the time, I was a die-hard Federer fan. I still am, but I have learned to respect his rivals a lot more in the last ten years. As a result, I was supporting Djokovic. As far as I was concerned, Nadal was the biggest threat to Federer’s GOAT status so Djokovic was the preferable option. How things have changed since. Nevertheless, when Nadal suddenly won the fourth set (and it seemed sudden to me in that moment), and the fifth looked to be close I cared less. I would still have preferred Djokovic to win, but if Nadal had won that contest, I actually wouldn’t have minded by the end. He would have earned it. Nevertheless, when Djokovic put away that winner from mid-court off a tired Nadal return, I was very pleased. His celebration encapsulated how much of a physical battle this victory was for him.
In the years since, I have always had this match as the standard by which a major final should be measured. I was still a young tennis fan, and I have grown to appreciate finals for what they are. One of my other favourites, Djokovic vs Murray at Wimbledon 2013, was over in straight sets. But still, when I think of major finals, I think of this one. Whenever Djokovic and Nadal meet again, this is the match I think of and see as the template for that contest. This is despite the fact that I don’t think they’ve played such a physical contest since.
I hadn’t rewatched the match in full until now. I’ve rewatched clips, but in the last ten years I have preferred to watch live tennis. I really struggle with being immersed in a contest when I know the outcome. The other issue is that since 2012 I have been to University and I now work a full time 9-5 job, which means I struggle to find the time to watch a 6-hour match. Given the milestone period of ten years though, I felt I had to try. So, here are my thoughts on the match as a tennis fan now, as a 27-year-old who has watched every major held since that match.
The match is a physical contest, but what made it so long wasn’t the rally length, although it did make a difference. It was the time both players were taking between points. I remember noticing this back in 2012. For me though, this wasn’t irritating, but helped build the tension. No game was an easy hold, you got the sense the momentum could swing at any moment.
For much of the match, the momentum was with Djokovic. Nadal started better, and deserved that first set, but by the end Djokovic was coming back at him. It reminded me a little of how the first set of their Roland Garros semi-final of 2021 played out. The second set in 2012 was more tightly contested, but was the inverse result, with Djokovic deserving the set but Nadal coming back at him only to find something out of nowhere to take it. The other big difference was that both players were more nervous the first set, whilst by this point both were going for it. It was more like the match I remembered, both players counter-punching and neutralising each other.
The third set was the least interesting. It was clear Djokovic was in the ascendency, and although Nadal came out swinging in the fourth there was a sense the Serb would get it done in four. He came close to doing it, only for Nadal to produce clutch, big hitting tennis at 3-4, 0-40 down. The fourth set deserved a tie-break, and Nadal fought his way back into the match. Even back in 2012, I thought this match deserved to go to a fifth, especially once the decider started.
The fifth set is what really sticks in my memory, as somehow these two physically exhausted men (particularly Djokovic) were still able to run so hard and hit so big. This still stuck with me. What interests me watching it back is the amount of unforced errors. I remembered the long, closely contested rallies but what I found was so many of them were ended by one of the players breaking down. They were either forced to by sheer weight of shot or the ball being just that bit out of reach, but still hit 140 unforced errors between them. Given there were 369 points played, that’s 37.9% of the exchanges ending with an unforced error. Whilst most ended with a player actively winning a point, there’s still enough unforced errors to be noticeable. However, it dawned on me that errors require context. A player making errors could be misfiring or overhitting, or it could be because they are being pushed to the limit of what can be achieved with a tennis racquet and ball. I felt that it was the latter in this case. It is small details like this that I picked up on when rewatching, but my overall impression of the match remained much the same. I was perhaps less enthusiastic after, but I was watching more with my head and less with my heart this time.
I really enjoyed the rewatch. It was still an epic contest, the big moments still got the same reactions. To me, this is a contest of baseline tennis at its very best, and I love a good rally from the back of the court. What will always stand out to me is the purity of the contest, of both men throwing everything they had at each other. If I’m honest, I can’t think of any match since where I have seen this play out in such an exciting way. I don’t know if I watched it live now whether it would stick with me in the same way as it did when I was 17, but I know a great match when I see one. For me, whilst Federer might be my favourite tennis player, Djokovic vs Nadal is my favourite tennis rivalry.