I tend to take a while to stop thinking constantly about the most recent Djokovic-Nadal match. Their Roland-Garros semifinal last year set up camp in my brain and refused to leave until their rematch this year in the quarterfinals of the same tournament. I wrote about this match right after it happened, but after multiple rewatches, I had many more thoughts. 52 of them, to be exact.
1. The second point of this match was a 21-shot rally, with Djokovic making several absurd gets, floating the ball into the corners of the court from defensive positions. Twice, most of the crowd thought the rally was over. Nadal stayed locked in and won the point anyway.
2. Nadal was incredibly aggressive from the very first point, hitting down the line with pace from both wings. From the opponent’s perspective, this would be hell — you usually go into a match expecting to ease in after a couple games. Against Nadal on this court, you have to be ready to do corner-to-corner sprints immediately. It’s no wonder that Djokovic has gotten crushed in the last three opening sets they’ve played on Philippe-Chatrier: 6-0 in 2020, 6-3 in 2021 (he trailed 5-0), and 6-2 in this match.
3. If I were on the ATP Tour, I would not have watched this match. The amount of skills Nadal and Djokovic showcase even in the first game — defense, offense, drop shots, touch at net, weight of shot — is awesome, and featured several shots that just aren’t in most players’ repertoires. As a player, I’m not sure if I’d be able to stop myself from thinking no matter how well I play, I cannot possibly do what they are doing. Just look what Diego Schwartzman — who was in the top ten and had taken a set off Nadal in the previous round — tweeted during Djokovic-Nadal #58 last year.
4. On the third deuce in the first game, Djokovic hit an inside-in forehand onto the sideline, forcing Nadal to hit a backhand on the stretch. In their semifinal last year, Djokovic made Nadal do this constantly, and the Spaniard’s backhand couldn’t answer the call. On this point, Nadal jacked a hard crosscourt backhand, drawing a short ball. Two shots later, he forced an error with a forehand down the line. It felt like an early message that Djokovic wasn’t going to be able to lean on last year’s tactic.
5. When these two play, the stakes are palpable on every point, and this sense has only strengthened as their careers have gone on. There were 41 major titles on court at the same time, gang. That’s wild.
6. At 1-0, 30-all, Nadal sort of floated a backhand down the line that landed right in the corner for a winner. It felt big to me — scoring a winner with one’s weaker wing early on can generate a lot of confidence, and there was the added bonus of getting to game point instead of having to face break point. I wondered how the match would have gone on to look if Nadal had missed the shot.
7. At 1-2, love-15, Djokovic played phenomenal defense, then on the first ball he had time to put an offensive swing on, crushed a backhand down the line Nadal could barely touch. Djokovic let out a celebratory yell. It was an incredible rally, but Djokovic had been forced to sprint from sideline to sideline a few times, and his chest was heaving for quite a few seconds after the point. Djokovic won the next two points as well, so there was no immediate repercussion, but Nadal continued to move him around a lot in the first set. I’m rarely if ever worried about Djokovic’s fitness, but in the first half-hour of the match, he must have burned a thousand calories chasing down Nadal’s forehands. Watching from the stands, I did wonder if he would pay for it physically later on.
Watch the first two or three minutes of this highlight video, and just keep your eyes on Djokovic. It’s a lot of running.
8. Since the earlier years of his career, Nadal has really improved his reaction time after the serve. He dealt with Djokovic’s baseline-licking returns in this match much better than he did in 2011 or 2012, for instance.
9. This matchup is as good as any at showing the importance of…well, matchups. In the previous round, Djokovic destroyed Diego Schwartzman. Just took him to pieces. Schwartzman is an excellent player, but there’s no comparison with Nadal. Against the Spaniard, Djokovic has to defend, since Nadal’s forehand is the biggest shot on court. He has to counter heavier spin, meaner angles, better defense. Djokovic was in great form leading up to the quarterfinal with Nadal, and it’s not that any opponent can really prepare you for a Nadal match, but Serb’s prior opponents may not have been the best possible study guide.
10. Also, compare what Nadal had to do in this match to how he played in the final against Casper Ruud — the match with Djokovic was an all-court slugfest, a battle of skills and wills that required every last drop of Nadal’s best tennis. In the final, Rafa never had to do anything more than hit decent crosscourt forehands.
11. Djokovic’s forehand defense in this match was incredible. He hit squash shots, slightly del Potro-esque hammer forehands while fully outstretched…Nadal’s forehand down the line, which was firing, did less damage against Djokovic than it would have against anyone else. Unfortunately for Djokovic, his defense didn’t elicit many errors. Nadal did a great job of retaining control of points once he got the upper hand, which is much harder than it sounds.
12. There is no room to drop your level against Nadal. Serving at 1-3, 15-30, Djokovic played a beautiful, patient point in which he forced Nadal to hit what felt like 100 backhands, then finished with a sweeping crosscourt backhand winner. Jim Courier called the 25-shot rally “time capsule stuff.” Djokovic then lost the next two points to get broken for a second time. Double break, set over, thanks for coming.
13. Hitting to Nadal’s forehand is like juggling fiery sticks while doused in gasoline. If you’re skilled enough at a very specific and difficult task, you might be okay for a while. But slip a little bit, hit the ball even a tiny bit short, and you instantly go up in flames. At 1-3, 30-40 in the first set, Djokovic hit a slightly sub-optimal crosscourt backhand, and Nadal pulverized it with a forehand winner down the line.
14. A stat for you: at Roland-Garros, Nadal is 8-2 against Djokovic, 3-1 against Robin Söderling, and 101-0 against literally everyone else he’s ever played there.
15. Nadal won 8/10 points played on his second serve in the opening set. A common theme in matches between these two is that if Nadal can cruise on serve, he will win.
16. The first set took 49 minutes. Watching from the stands, I struggled to grasp the concept that the match was, at minimum, a third of the way over. By Djokovic and Nadal’s standards, the set had been a blowout, but the intensity had still been off the charts. When Djokovic’s backhand return found the net on set point, Nadal yelled “sí!” like he had just reeled in the biggest catch of his life, Old Man and the Sea-style. My head hurt. (In a good way, I think.)
17. A big difference from last year’s Djokovic-Nadal semifinal was Nadal’s level at the start of the second set. In both matches, Nadal came out of the gates in god mode, but in 2021, he made a bunch of errors to begin the second set — he even lost the first seven points. Though Nadal went on to break back after being down 2-0, Djokovic had asserted himself on the match without having to play his best. This year, Nadal piled on the pressure after winning the opener, giving Djokovic hell in an epic game and breaking on his seventh opportunity. Djokovic went on to win the second set, but it required a much higher level than last year’s second set. The effort sapped a ton of energy from the Serb, whereas last year Djokovic was able to play incredible, almost error-free tennis in a now-legendary third set.
18. The moment when I realized this match would be different from their last one: with Djokovic serving at 30-15 to begin the second set, Nadal pulverized a crosscourt backhand, then scampered to net (my mid-match note: my god, the footwork) to put away a smash. The message: you cannot relax for a moment, my friend.
19. I think playing Nadal at Roland-Garros requires a certain level of selective ignorance. You have to understand what you’re up against so you can prepare proper tactics — rush his forehand, attack his backhand — but you don’t want to know any of his stats from the tournament. You’d lose hope immediately. When Casper Ruud lost the first two sets in the final, I got the sense Ruud knew exactly the size of the mountain he had to climb, since he’d idolized Nadal for over a decade. It was no surprise that Nadal won the third set 6-0, and not just because he was playing the better tennis. Djokovic embodies this balance quite well, I think — he does what he can to neutralize Nadal’s strengths, but he never cowers in the face of them. He respects Nadal’s forehand, he doesn’t fear it.
20. An example of Djokovic’s amazing outstretched forehand defense: down break point in the first game of the second set, he got pushed wide by a good crosscourt backhand, but slapped a hard forehand back crosscourt, earning a short reply that he put away with his backhand.
21. Can we talk about Nadal’s forehand down the line? When he hits it properly, it simply cannot be dealt with the vast majority of the time. Because Nadal’s crosscourt forehand is so good, and that’s the direction he goes most of the time, his opponents always cheat to that side of the court a little bit. That means Nadal is hitting his forehand down the line into open space, at high speed, with vicious spin, close to the sideline. It’s practically invincible. No one has ever defended it better than Djokovic, and the shot still gave him fits in this match. Nadal didn’t even hit it that often, but it was devastating almost every time he did.
22. After breaking in the first game of the second set, Nadal consolidated by winning four straight points. He hit a crosscourt backhand passing shot winner after being on the defensive for the entire rally, then an ace, then a flicky-pickup of a forehand pass down the line, then a massive unreturned second serve. The impression turned out to be wrong — never count Djokovic out — but at this point, the match looked over.
23. As of 0-2 in the second set, Djokovic’s average groundstroke speeds were 80 mph on the forehand and 74 mph on the backhand to Nadal’s 75 and 73. Nadal still led the winners tally comfortably. As pointed out by Jim Courier, all the talk was about how the conditions would affect Nadal, but Djokovic was finding it more difficult to finish points, both because of Nadal’s defense and because he lacked a nuclear-grade groundstroke. Djokovic-as-ballbasher is often a very effective strategy, but it’s not the way he likes to play. (Interestingly, pre-2011, he often played Nadal on clay like this, by hitting the crap out of every ball he could.)
24. When Nadal broke a second time to go up 3-0 in the second set, the match really looked over.
25. At 3-0, 30-15 in the second set, Nadal had 25 winners and 8 unforced errors. It was somewhere around this point during the match that I wrote that Nadal’s level was better than it had been in the 2020 final.
26. Djokovic does not need much help to get into a match. The tide started turning after 3-0, 30-15, when Djokovic won five points in a row. In minutes, he had double break point to get back on serve at 3-all.
27. On the first deuce of the 3-2 game, they played a 22-shot rally, during most of which Nadal had to hit backhands from a defensive position. Late in the point, he hit an incredibly deep crosscourt forehand from miles behind the baseline, which reset Djokovic’s advantage and allowed Nadal to force an error with a forehand down the line. Nadal celebrated emphatically; the crowd roared loudly. The point felt very important.
28. Djokovic answered by thrashing a few groundstrokes on the next rally, eventually forcing Nadal to shank a forehand due to the sheer pace on the ball. On Nadal’s next ad, Djokovic mauled a 99 mph inside-out forehand winner. He eventually went on to break in an 18-minute game. So the rally on the first deuce maybe wasn’t that important.
29. Djokovic was able to win this set from 3-0 down in part because he embarked on what may have been the most dominant display of returning I have ever seen. He broke Nadal three times in this stretch, and the one time Nadal was able to hold came after a lengthy deuce battle. Nadal played 44 points on his serve across these four service games, and Djokovic won 25 of these points. That’s 56.8%. Pretty astonishing. It wasn’t like Nadal served badly — in fact, he made 32 of 44 first serves (72.7%) in this stretch. Djokovic was just all over him anyway.
30. The way Djokovic’s returning took over the match for a while was just breathtaking to watch. Nadal missed first-ball shots because he was starved of time. Nadal had to half-volley backhands off the baseline, then immediately field a barrage of Djokovic forehands. Once, Nadal tried to run around yet another return on his backhand side, but he was too ambitious and netted his forehand. For quite a while, Nadal was forced to react to what Djokovic was doing, which is shocking considering the court they were playing on.
31. By my unofficial count, this was the first time in the entire Djokovic-Nadal rivalry that one player had won a set from two breaks down. The entire time in 59 matches. In 159 sets. There are not many words for the fact that Djokovic was suddenly able to do it on Nadal’s favorite court. (On a side note, this stat shows what incredible frontrunners both guys are. For all Federer gets talked about as a great frontrunner, both Djokovic and Nadal have won a set against him from two breaks down.)
32. To show just how devastating Djokovic’s returns were, after the second set, Nadal’s win rate behind his first serve was all the way down to 58%.
33. To me, Djokovic lost this match because his level oscillated too wildly between the insanely good and the not-that-great. As outrageous as his tennis was at the end of the second set, I wasn’t surprised at Nadal taking a lead to start the third, because there was nowhere for Djokovic to go but down. What he did in the second set was otherworldly, but it wasn’t sustainable in the least, and that cost him during the crucial third set. After the second set, I wrote in my notebook that Djokovic seemed to have succeeded in making the match a war of attrition, and would therefore like his chances going forward. But Nadal’s level was far steadier, which meant that he had the advantage whenever Djokovic was not redlining successfully. That’s where you want to be in a tennis match.
34. Per Jim Courier, Nadal did not miss a single second serve return until the fourth set. His return speed average was around 80 mph (which is huge), to boot. It was a phenomenal returning performance. He broke Djokovic seven times. Djokovic is the best-ever returner of serve, but there have been matches in which Nadal wins the return of serve battle, and this was one of them.
35. This match took a significant dip in quality after the second set. Though there weren’t too many moments where both were simultaneously brilliant, Nadal was next to perfect for the first set and a half and Djokovic was next to perfect for the rest of the second set. Both stretches were euphoric. Understandably, the effort seemed to take something out of them. (The second set was 88 minutes!) Nadal won the third set while playing significantly less well than he did in the first, and the fourth set had bad patches from both.
36. Another note on the quality of the match: it wasn’t as good as their semifinal last year. Each met an individual peak that I thought was higher, but they were rarely firing simultaneously, which they were during almost the entire duration of the 2021 semifinal’s third set. It seemed odd given that Nadal had physical issues during last year’s match and none this year, but match quality is a fickle thing.
37. Tennis Channel showed a brief highlight from the 2012 Australian Open final after the second set. Though their Wimbledon 2018 semifinal was a far better quality match, the 2012 meat-grinder is still the signature Djokovic-Nadal in my view. They just pushed the boundaries of what was physically possible on a tennis court.
38. Djokovic missed a smash into the net with Nadal serving at 2-1, 15-all in the third set. It was not surprising, but it was costly. Nadal went on to win the next three games.
39. Crucially, when Nadal had dips, they were either smaller or shorter in duration than Djokovic’s. While the Serb went down a double break at the start of the first three sets, Nadal’s fourth set lapse cost him only a single break, which was a deficit he could make up (and he did make it up). Djokovic may have recovered to win the second set, but it required a mammoth effort and his best tennis of the match. He could not reproduce it later.
40. Djokovic lost his rhythm on the return of serve midway through the fourth set. After breaking Nadal for 2-0, he didn’t win as many as three points in a return game for the rest of the match. This may have cost him, as Nadal was able to cruise through his service games with relative ease until the tiebreak. Even when Rafa served to stay in the fourth set at 4-5 — usually danger time against Djokovic, remember the end of the second set — the feeling was always that he would hold comfortably.
Djokovic’s return performance was emblematic of his performance as a whole: he broke Nadal three times in the second set and just once in the other three sets. Too streaky.
41. The net cord was absolutely awful towards Djokovic in this match. He must have had six or seven points not go his way that involved the net cord — his shots would catch the tape and either drift wide or hang up for Nadal to destroy; Nadal’s net cords would die softly on the other side of the net. I usually hate it when players throw tantrums, but I cannot say Djokovic didn’t have reason to smack the net with his racket at 1-0 in the fourth set.
42. Djokovic failing to serve out the fourth set at 5-3 was the focal point of the match for a lot of people. He had two set points, one of which he spurned by missing a backhand from a neutral position, and the other of which he lost by getting passed by Nadal’s backhand after a sub-par approach shot. Djokovic had a crucial lapse, many said, by not closing out the fourth set. He doesn’t usually miss chances like that.
This is a tempting argument. Sitting in the stands, though, I felt that the 5-3 game was one of the best quality games in the entire fourth set. I thought Djokovic served very well for most of the game, then was put under immense pressure as soon as he started to miss first serves. Did he make crucial errors on both his set points? Absolutely. But I rewatched the game, and Djokovic hit three winners, plus an unreturnable serve, plus a forehand that forced an error. Nadal hit five winners. This was a very tense, high-quality game decided by extremely thin margins. Djokovic has played far worse service games in the past and held, even against Rafa.
43. Djokovic’s return winner to save the third match point. Jesus Christ. I know Nadal hit a terrible serve into the middle of the box, but to be able to wheel out of the way and crush that ball into the corner without a moment of hesitation? On match point? Djokovic is simply unreal, and 2011 will tell you that this shot was no fluke.
44. It was a shame Djokovic fell so far behind in the tiebreak, because his recovery from 6-1 to 6-4 was excellent. Even the match point Nadal converted had to be earned — he hit a backhand winner down the line, which is probably his least favorite shot, after a long rally. If Djokovic had snapped into his icy lockdown mode earlier, we could have had an absurdly tense tiebreak, and/or a fifth set.
45. What would have happened if Djokovic had gotten back to 5-6 in the tiebreak? He’d have served on the next point. Had he won that, he’d be oozing momentum at the changeover. Saving five consecutive match points against Nadal at Roland-Garros was a bridge too far even for Djokovic, but I would have said the same about winning a set from a double break down before Djokovic did just that. He wasn’t that far away from evening the tiebreak.
46. The way these guys can produce their best tennis against each other is amazing. It’s not like a Marin Čilić god mode performance — as much as hard work and tactics go into tennis, Čilić seems to randomly get possessed by a tennis god every now and then. He can practice as much as he wants, but minor tweaks to his game will never be as relevant as those rare times when the god agrees to hang out with him for a little bit. With Nadal and Djokovic, it’s like they produce peak performances because they have to. Nadal went into this match as the underdog, so he came out of the gates flying. Djokovic knew he would be toast if he went down two sets, so he redlined successfully to even the match. It was magic on command. This is also why their rivalry has featured so many lopsided episodes — if one player fails to fully show up, they get demolished.
47. Djokovic’s reaction after the match was unusual. To my eyes, he is usually more classy than Nadal immediately after losses, giving the Spaniard a nice cuddly handshake even after near misses. After this match, though, he gave Nadal a perfunctory handshake, then walked off the court quickly without waving. There was a lot of discussion about the crowd being bad, and I can confirm that they were indeed excessively harsh towards Djokovic, but I didn’t totally understand the argument. Djokovic has played against infinitely worse crowds before. (And come out on top virtually every time. The 2015 U.S. Open final and 2019 Wimbledon final come to mind.) Maybe the combination of the crowd and the opponent made a difference that a worse crowd and a less difficult opponent could not.
I don’t blame Djokovic for this reaction, by the way. Saša Ozmo’s exceptional interview with Goran Ivanišević indicated that days after the match, the loss was still setting in. Djokovic rarely loses close matches — when he’s not at his best, he tends to either win a close match (like the 2019 Wimbledon final) or get blown out (like the 2020 Roland-Garros final). I have little doubt that he fully expected himself to win this match, and it didn’t happen, and the historical implications are big. I also have little doubt that he will recover fully and win Wimbledon.
48. It’s hard not to think about the third member of the Big Three when the two others take the court. Devang Desai wondered if Roger Federer watched this match, and how he really feels about how things have shaken out in the past few years. The pessimistic answer is that he feels bad, because he has already been outpaced by both Djokovic and Nadal, and they have more time left to win titles than he does. As an optimist, I think Federer understands that he gave his career all he could, and that it’s not a shortcoming on his part to be exceeded by two even-more-superpowered beings. (Even if he’d won Wimbledon in 2019, Nadal would be one ahead of him.) After so many years of being the undisputed male GOAT, it might not be easy for Federer to accept that his legacy is shifting more towards “rival to the GOATs” than “the main GOAT”, but from the clips I’ve seen of him, he seems okay. Which is nice.
49. I feel like it would be malpractice not to mention the GOAT debate. There is a vocal contingent of fans and pundits who say that the debate is such an evolving thing that we should wait until everyone involved retires before making cases. To me, this is a bit of a lazy argument — sure, stuff changes, but that doesn’t mean we’re incapable of evaluating things as they are. We just have to be willing to re-evaluate, potentially after every single major. I’m more than fine with that, so let’s jump in.
Nadal now has 22 majors to Djokovic’s 20. This has been a good year for his GOAT case. He won the Australian Open, which was previously his least successful major by title count. He won Roland-Garros, beating his GOAT-rival in Djokovic along the way. A two-major lead is not nothing. I would still give the slightest of nods to Djokovic given what he’s achieved at the Masters 1000s (he’s only got two more than Nadal overall, but the fact that he’s won all of them at least twice — Nadal is title-less at two of the nine — speaks to greater surface versatility) and at the world #1 ranking spot, but Nadal is giving himself a great case. He looks increasingly likely to finish his career with the most majors.
50. Nadal is really good at not choking. Jon Wertheim and Chris Almeida talked about it a bit here. In his biggest matches, he does not roll over. He often makes things harder for himself than they need to be — maybe he’ll lose a set after being ahead, or even have match point, lose it, then have to play for another hour before winning — but he never loses matches because of a choke. His clutchness is like a key that you have to jiggle in a lock for a while (as you try not to lose your mind), but that never fails to open the door. Despite Djokovic’s push from 6-1 to 6-4 in the fourth-set tiebreak, I think there was very little doubt that Nadal would win the 6-4 point to close out the match.
51. A continuation of the last point: Nadal was better in the big moments of this match. He was 7/18 on break points, but only once had a return game in which he had a break point and didn’t break serve (3-3 in the second set). No points were bigger than the two set points Djokovic had in the fourth set, though, and while Djokovic’s play left a lot to be desired, Nadal didn’t miss and delivered a passing shot winner on the second. It feels like Nadal is the only opponent against whom Djokovic cannot count on winning most of the big points.
52. If this was the last edition of the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry (excuse me as I hold back tears), it was a great sendoff. There’s the symmetry of playing their last match in the same place (and in the same round) they played their first. It was a competitive match, featuring brilliant patches of play from both. Despite being a quarterfinal, it felt like a final, and Nadal going on to win the tournament indicates that it was a final. These two have broken each other for years, but they’ve somehow used the bone-shattering blows to become stronger rather than weaker. The highest quality tennis from this gleaming Golden Era has taken place during Djokovic-Nadal matches. If I ever write a book about tennis, it will be about this rivalry. There are 59 matches to draw from.
All that said, I would really like for them to make it 60.