Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic current Head to Head: 22-17, with Rafa winning their last encounter ATP World Tour Finals 2013.
The rivalry between Novak Djokovic (Player Profile) and Rafael Nadal (Player Profile) that now dominates the world of men’s tennis didn’t look like it might amount to much when it first began in 2006. But despite an inauspicious beginning at Roland Garros, seven years later these two champions head into the biggest clay court tournament in the world next month as part of the most important matchup in the sport today.
They first met in the quarter-finals of the French Open back in 2006. Nadal, who as defending champion, advanced 6-4, 6-4 after Djokovic was forced to retire in the third set due to a back injury. It wouldn’t be until the following year that Djokovic would get his first win over Nadal on the hard courts of Miami. That would set up a familiar pattern in the resulting meetings over the next few years — Nadal would win on clay courts, while Djokovic often found success on concrete.
The turning point in their rivalry came ironically with Djokovic losing to Nadal on clay again in 2009. That was in the Madrid semifinals during a bruising marathon three set encounter than Nadal won 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9). In that 202 minute battle, the key stat for Djokovic was that he won 54% of his second serve return points versus Nadal only winning 29% of his. That stat is telling in that it shows how much more effective Djokovic’s overall return game was becoming. Nadal, not known for having the biggest serve on tour, was now being forced to do more with his first delivery in order to defeat his Serbian opponent.
Though he lost, Djokovic proved he could potentially beat Nadal on the Spaniard’s favorite surface. But that breakthrough would take yet another two years to achieve.
Serving big when he needed it was exactly what Nadal had to do when he faced Djokovic in what was then their most important meeting yet in the 2010 U.S. Open men’s finals. All event, Nadal showed off an amped-up serve that allowed him to win cheap points as he didn’t drop a set en route to the finals.
Nadal won 73% of his first serve points as he went on to win his first ever U.S. Open title over Djokovic. Nadal with that victory sealed a historic 2010 season as he completed a career Grand Slam. Nadal looked on the verge of continuing his reign over Djokovic into the next year. But the Serb himself was ready to make history of his own.
2011 became the year of the “Falcon” as Djokovic went on an unbeaten win streak over five months. His win over Nadal on the hard courts of Indian Wells and Miami were expected. But this was a new Djokovic that the Spanish superstar was facing now. Thanks to an improved diet and fitness regimen, Djokovic was quicker, his returns were sharper and he had sorted out technical issues with his serve that often caused multiple double faults.
Taking on Nadal in the Madrid finals, Djokovic showed off not only a new confidence that comes with not losing, but also a new emphasis on attacking Nadal earlier in their rallies rather than just be content to trade multiple groundstroke after groundstroke.
Djokovic’s straight set win over Nadal in Madrid and then a week later in the finals of Rome clearly rattled Nadal who wasn’t used to losing on clay on someone else’s terms. Now Nadal had a true rival in Djokovic on all surfaces and that forced Nadal to admit that his grip on the sport’s top ranking was coming to an end.
The start of the 2012 season would produce what some feel is the greatest match of all time when Djokovic and Nadal met in the Australian Open finals. A nearly six hour battle that would test both men’s physical and mental limits, it was Djokovic who prevailed after five grueling sets. In some ways, it was a fitting testament to Djokovic’s intense off-court training and a dismissal of his earlier days of losing or retiring from matches due to fitness.
Nadal would resume his dominance on clay again in 2012 by completing a perfect trifecta sweep of Djokovic in the finals of Monte-Carlo, Rome and then Roland Garros. They wouldn’t meet again until just a few weeks ago in the finals of Monte Carlo where Djokovic finally ended Nadal’s eight year reign as champion.
However, Rafa payback came in just less than a month as he defeated Nole in a five set thriller in the Roland Garros semi-final, eventually going on to win the trophy by overcoming fellow Spaniard David Ferrer in the final.
Another huge victory for the Spaniard happened in the US Open final, where he managed to beat the Serb in four sets, winning his second Flushing Meadows title.
While Djokovic may still be favored against Nadal on a hard court, it is on clay where Nadal will have to draw the proverbial line in the sand against the Serb. Nadal is now 3-3 against Djokovic in the last three years on clay – proof that Djokovic’s improvement since 2009 is slowly eating away at Nadal’s total dominance on the surface. Nadal will now have to find a way to raise his level, possibly by either adding more speed to his serve as he did back in 2011 or finding ways to avoid Djokovic’s lethal backhand side in their rallies and attack Djokovic’s forehand more. Not an easy task given that Djokovic’s forehand has improved considerably with the rest of his game.
Will Nadal maintain his advantage in this rivalry by season’s end? Or will Djokovic surge ahead? We will soon find out.