It’s Not a Magic Wand, Part 4

The first four games of the Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic quarterfinal at Roland-Garros took 29 minutes to get through. This is too intense, I wrote in my notebook. Something has to give. The two titans had played through a multi-deuce opening game that featured more amazing rallies — Nadal ran Djokovic all over the place on the second point, and I swear, the crowd thought the point had ended three times before it actually did — than some entire matches. With Nadal serving at 2-1, they again dug in for a marathon game. This was a trend that lasted throughout the match. The second set, summarized by an ordinary 6-4 score, lasted almost 90 minutes. Six different games went to deuce. Had it gone to a tiebreak, the set could have approached two hours in length. Two hours. For one set. Think about that for a second.

Nadal and Djokovic have never had it easy against each other. When you mix two players who have bottomless reserves of will and tactical mobility, and are two of the most talented ever on top of that, you get dazzling tennis, but you also get matches that refuse to end before one player has absolutely emptied the bucket. I was in the stands for this match, and by the end I felt like I had a crater in my head even as I grinned deliriously. It was like taking a lava bath with a protective suit on that was strong enough to keep me alive, but light enough to deliver unfiltered sensation.

What the match would be like for Djokovic and Nadal themselves, then, I have no idea. Djokovic certainly looked gutted at the end — he embraced Nadal respectfully but curtly, then marched off court without waving. And who can blame him? He simply does not lose matches like the one he just lost. If you handed me a scoreline like 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) and told me that Djokovic had lost in over four hours, I’d think you were insane. When things get close, Djokovic edges out his opponents. When the points get big, Djokovic delivers. When matches get long and physical, Djokovic outlasts. In this match, though, Djokovic failed to convert two set points on serve at 5-3 in the fourth set, set points that would have put him in a fifth set against Nadal on Chatrier for the first time since 2013. The set went to a tiebreak — Djokovic excels in these against top players, whereas Nadal hadn’t won one against a top-10 player since 2019 — and Djokovic didn’t just lose, he fell behind 6-1. He played brilliantly afterwards: a backhand winner for 6-2, a service winner for 6-3, a holy-shit-what-just-happened forehand return winner off a Nadal first serve for 6-4. But it didn’t matter, he was too far gone. Nadal patiently opened up the court on his fourth match point and crushed a backhand winner down the line. (Credit to Djokovic for making Nadal play, by the way. From 6-1 up in a tiebreak, you expect to win it 7-1, not to have to play four more points and to have to win by going for your worst shot.)

*****

The match as a whole wasn’t an epic. I thought it resembled many of their past meetings at Roland-Garros at some point or another, only for the match to shape-shift thereafter. After the first set blowout, I thought of 2020. When Djokovic evened the match, I thought of 2021. As Nadal swept through the third (a stat: today’s third set lasted 38 minutes, the third set of last year’s semifinal lasted 97), turning a close match into a lopsided one, I thought of 2013. This match was certainly its own, though, featuring previously unseen passages of play.

For example: from a double break down in the second set, Djokovic embarked on perhaps the most dominant display of returning I have ever seen. From a double break down, a set is supposed to be over. Maybe, if you put together a couple really good games, you can get to a tiebreak. Djokovic, though, broke Nadal three times like it was nothing. Nadal. On Nadal’s favorite court. Djokovic simply fired perfect return after perfect return. Nadal made hard first serves, and loopy second serves, and even crushed a few second serves in an effort to throw Djokovic off. It didn’t matter. The ball came back to Nadal’s feet on the backhand side with hellish consistency. Nadal, who has won 13 Roland-Garros titles, was reduced to reacting to whatever Djokovic did. The Serb did employ the backhand jail tactic to some success, but it didn’t feel that important; Djokovic was giving himself so much time with his returns that he could have done whatever the hell he wanted. I was initially surprised when Rafa ran away with the third, but with Djokovic returning from heaven, the only way to go was down. It had to happen at some point.

The way he ramped up his returning reminded me of a scene from Thor: Ragnarok. Thor is fighting Hela, who’s noticeably stronger than he is. When they start dueling, Thor gets a couple good hits in, but Hela swings the battle by first blocking his strike, then counterattacking. The longer the fight went on, the bigger advantage Hela had. Djokovic had taken a huge blow in the first set and a half, but his response was so devastating as to erase a typically unsurmountable deficit.

This comparison eventually fails since the decisive passage of play was Nadal coming back at Djokovic after Djokovic came back at Nadal, but if you saw the match, you don’t even need the analogy. Good fight scene, though.

Another example: Nadal’s level during the first set and a half was inexplicably good. If there is anyone out there who goes into a match expecting to face a level that high, they are a hopeless husk. Nadal mauled forehands down the line and covered the court like a weighted blanket. He was so close to his best that it became impossible for Djokovic to be at his best — how could he have been, given how he had to hit practically every shot on the dead run? Djokovic is one of the fittest players on tour and has no issues with sprinting around the court, but I was genuinely worried for him after the first-half hour, he was running so much. The worst part was that his defense wasn’t even doing anything. He would repel a blazing forehand down the line with a squash shot, only for Nadal to run around it and drill the next forehand inside-in for a winner. Nadal’s god-mode tennis faded in the middle of the second set, though the damage had been done, both to Djokovic and Patrick Moratoglou’s “expertise” on the two titans.

It’s important to know that neither of these two would have played this way against anyone else. Against, say, Zverev, Nadal could get away with safer forehands and Djokovic would be fine hitting average returns rather than perfect ones. Against each other, though, they have to go for it. They have to throw their “high-margin aggression” mantras out the window and attack, all the time if they can. Whoever doesn’t rise to the occasion inevitably watches the opponent do just that.

*****

One of the most remarkable parts of this rivalry is the way it continues to evolve even in what is surely its final chapter. In 2019, Nadal bageled Djokovic in the first set of the Rome final. It was the first bagel of the entire rivalry. It was jarring, especially given that the last match they had played was the Australian Open final, a demolition in favor of Djokovic. Surely, the implication was, Djokovic wouldn’t beat Nadal on clay again. In 2021, though, he did it. He didn’t just beat Nadal at Roland-Garros, he did it from a set down, which had never been done before. Now, after being billed as the underdog by virtually everyone, Nadal has taken revenge. This rivalry is made up of two main segments: Djokovic trying and failing to beat Nadal with any reliability before 2011, and the roles reversing afterwards. Even within the segments, though, these matches are damn hard to predict. Djokovic and Nadal have now met at Roland-Garros the last three years, and many of us have gotten the pick wrong all three times. The tactics are well-established, but so many different things can throw a match into chaos. Most were confident Djokovic would win headed into this one, and Nadal tore up the script by playing at a superhuman level for the first hour and a half. You can’t predict possession-by-the-tennis-gods. Just ask Marin Čilić.

Another fascinating aspect of Djokovic-Nadal is the degree to which the matchup favors Djokovic. His return of serve is especially damaging to Nadal, whose serve isn’t the best, and whose groundstrokes need a lot of time to load up. His backhand neutralizes Nadal’s forehand, his biggest weapon. Djokovic’s forehand can break down Nadal’s backhand. It’s a tactical nightmare for the Spaniard, which is a big reason why he hasn’t won a set on hard court against Djokovic since 2013. Somehow, though, the head-to-head is 30-29. Sure, that’s partly because Djokovic took some time to grow into the rivalry, and because Nadal is so good on clay that he can beat Djokovic despite the bad matchup, but the underlying message is that great players can break bad matchups. No one else has even close to as many as 29 wins against Djokovic besides Federer (23). Even since 2011, when the Serb went into supersonic mode and took the upper hand in the rivalry, Nadal leads the tour in wins over Djokovic with 12. It’s a testament to them both — Djokovic did the tactical homework no one had done before to get a leg up in the Nadal matchup, and Nadal’s own tactical mind has led him to plenty of wins anyway.

This was maybe, I don’t know, the 10th best match Djokovic and Nadal have played. Even in what was for them a patchy few hours, though, the sheer skill they managed to display is astounding. It was almost hilarious how evident their superiority over the rest of the field was even during their dips. No other player is capable of going on the second-set rampage Djokovic managed. Afterwards, when it looked like he had all the momentum, Nadal casually won the first seven points of the third set. Each player took titanic blows to the midsection and continued to throw punches even as their bodies sank to the ground. Their rivalry is unique because they only see themselves — their prodigious endurance, intelligence, and shot quality — in each other. No one else comes close.

I can’t look away whenever these two play each other. I turned my phone off during the match and never had an urge to look at it. The crowd knew what they were witnessing — I didn’t see a single empty seat. At times, it was as if fans of the players were playing a match of their own, yelling when they saw an opportunity to lift their guy, raising the decibel level to drown out the other side. I brought a small notebook with me. It had 16 small pages, and before the end of the first game, I had filled two of them. The whole thing was full by match point. I moved it from my hand to pocket and back so many times that I chafed my finger on my pocket zipper. A bit of blood dripped onto the notebook. I didn’t realize what it was from until well after it happened.

Many of Nadal’s quotes this tournament have undertones of an impending retirement. His foot won’t leave him alone. Still, he’s the winner of the last major tournament, and the probable winner of this one. If he calls it quits soon, it won’t be because he can’t win anymore. Djokovic is an expert at rebounding from tough losses. He will be the overwhelming favorite at Wimbledon. Both guys have found a way to suspend their decline, replacing parts of their game as other components start to fail. Even now, with weary bodies and minds, these two playing is the greatest show in tennis. They’ve mastered everything that can be mastered. They make magic when they play.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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