India vs Pakistan, Real Madrid vs Barcelona, Lin Dan vs Lee Chong Wei, Senna vs Prost, Frazier vs Ali, Lakers vs Celtics, Red Sox vs Yankees and then there is Nadal vs Djokovic.
These are arguably some of the best rivalries that sport has ever witnessed and ardent fans have felt the pressure of these match-ups. When it comes to modern day tennis, perhaps the Rafa-Novak rivalry stands out as the distinct representative match-up that tennis fans all over the planet want to see.
The 44th installment of their celebrated rivalry was played in the QF of the French Open 2015 with too much on stake. Ironically, 43 matches ago they met for the first time in the QFs of the 2006 French Open. Since then, the two gladiators have met in numerous encounters redefining tennis as a war of skill, fortitude, physical brutality and mental toughness. Djokovic was finally able to shake the monkey off his back as he thwarted Nadal in straight sets 7-5, 6-3, 6-1. It was Nadal’s second defeat in 72 matches in Paris and his record now stands at 93-2 in best-of-5 set matches on clay.
Although the match-up on Wednesday did not live upto everyone’s expectation, here is a look at 5 unforgettable matches in the Rafa-Nole rivalry that have not only gone onto outline their individual careers but also rewritten the history books of Tennis.
2008 Masters Series Hamburg SF – Nadal def. Djokovic 7-5, 2-6, 6-2
Coming into the match: Djokovic has stunned the tennis world by winning his 1st Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open defeating defending champion and World No.1 Federer in the SFs and getting the better of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the finals. He had also won 2 Masters titles coming into this match, Indian Wells & Rome Masters. He was the in-form player coming into the Hamburg Masters.
Nadal has also made a steady start to the season reaching the SFs in Melbourne (l. to Tsonga), reaching the finals in Miami (l. to Davydenko). During the clay-court season, Nadal had won Monte-Carlo Masters and Barcelona. Prior to this match, Djokovic had won their only meeting of the season in the SFs of the Indian Wells Masters (6-3, 6-2). Nadal was leading the head-to-head 6-3 till date. The World No. 2 ranking was on the line in this match.
Rafael Nadal came out on top in the battle for the No. 2 position in the ATP Rankings with a 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 victory over Novak Djokovic in a colossal battle which lasted over three hours and three minutes. It was the greatest match of their rivalry to date. In a first set featuring five breaks of serve under the roof on Centre Court at Rothenbaum, Djokovic began in scorching form, breaking Nadal early to lead 3-0. Nadal come back roaring to level the match at 3-3.
Nadal seemed to have got the better of Novak and the Spaniard broke back again to lead 5-4. With Nadal serving for the first set, Djokovic began to go for his shots and again leveled the match at 5-5. Nadal started to produce exceptional tennis and again broke Djokovic for a 6-5 lead. This time he did not falter and took the opening set which lasted 72 minutes. Djokovic was much more aggressive in the second set and was able to edge out a break of serve to lead 3-2. With Nadal serving to stay in the set at 2-5, Novak’s baseline intimidation finally got the better of Rafa as he surrendered the set to the Serb. Djokovic’s momentum was short-lived as Rafa pounced back and immediately earned a break of serve to lead 1-0. Djokovic’s hopes began to dissolve and Rafa seized the opportunity to win the match after converting on his 5th match point and thus holding onto the No.2 ranking.
Reverberation: Nadal went on to avenge his 2007 Hamburg Masters defeat to Roger Federer in the final (Federer had ended his record 81-match win streak on clay in 2007). Furthermore Nadal went to win both French Open & Wimbledon (first man to win the Channel Slam since Bjorn Borg in 1980) and capped off his greatest summer till date by winning the Olympic Gold in Beijing. Nadal also enjoyed a 32-match win streak in 2008 starting in Hamburg, which is longest winning streak across 3 surfaces in the Open-Era. Djokovic also managed to have a solid season and finished the season by winning his 1st Masters Cup/ATP World Tour Finals.
Honorable mention: A year later the two met in the SFs of the Madrid Masters. It was a melodramatic battle which Rafa managed to win 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(9) after saving 3 match points. This match had held the record for the longest best-of-3 sets match in the Open-Era at 4 hrs and 3 minutes until the record was bettered by the 4hr and 26 min marathon between Federer and Del Potro in the SFs of the London Olympics in 2012
2010 US Open Final – Nadal def. Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2
Coming into the match: Nadal was perhaps playing the best tennis of his career having being undefeated on clay (22-0) winning Monte Carlo, Rome & Madrid Masters. He went on regain the World No.1 ranking from Federer after winning Roland Garros for a 5th time before becoming only the 2nd man after Bjorn Borg to win multiple Channel Slams. He entered the US Open trying to complete the Career Grand Slam.
Djokovic had struggled this season winning only 1 title (Dubai) and lost his No.2 ranking. He had also ceased his partnership with coach Todd Martin who had tried to change Novak’s Service motion. He had beaten Roger Federer in the SFs after saving 2 Match Points. Nadal was on a 3 match losing streak against Djokovic going into this match.
World No.1 Rafa Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 and became the 7th man to complete the career Grand Slam (youngest to accomplish the feat in the Open Era at 24 years old). He also became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win 3 straight Grand Slam events in the same season. Though rain delayed their meeting by a day, Nadal made a confident start to the championship match Monday as he broke Djokovic.
Though the Serbian drew level at 2-2, Nadal regained the lead as he converted on his sixth break point opportunity of the next game. The pair was locked at 4-4, 30/30, in the second set when rain suspended play for one hour and 57 minutes. When they returned, Djokovic broke the Spaniard for a third time to force a set off of Nadal for the first time during the 2010 US Open.
Djokovic was unable to maintain the momentum, however, with Nadal continually putting pressure on his serve. The top seed created 16 break point chances through the final two sets and converted on three of them (6 for 26 during the match). He claimed the victory as his opponent’s return sailed wide on championship point after three hours and 43 minutes.
Reverberation: Nadal went on to clinch the Year End No.1 for the 2nd time in his career and enjoyed arguably his greatest season (71-10; 7 titles). But on the other hand, it was the start of Djokovic’s ascendance to the top of Men’s’ Tennis as went on to win his 1st Davis Cup title with Serbia and would start one of the most impressive winning streaks in the Open-Era (43 matches unbeaten run).
2011 Wimbledon Final – Djokovic def. Nadal 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3
Coming into the match: Djokovic was perhaps producing the greatest season in the Open-Era. He had won the Australian Open and 4 Masters Titles (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome). He was 47-1 coming into the finals of Wimbledon. Federer has defeated him in the SFs of Roland Garros to hand Novak his only loss of the season and end his 43 match unbeaten run. Djokovic had taken over the No.1 spot in the rankings after beating Tsonga in the SFs of Wimbledon.
Nadal had made a relatively tough start to the season. At the Australian Open, he was trying to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all the 4 Grand Slams, but lost to David Ferrer in the QFs (apparent hamstring injury). Although Nadal did manage to win his 6th French Open (also won Monte Carlo & Barcelona), he had struggled against the Serb losing 4 consecutive finals.
The current World No. 1 Rafael Nadal, the 2008 and 2010 titlist met the soon-to-be No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final. For two sets, Djokovic was superb hitting 22 winners past Nadal, who was unable to hit top form in lengthy baseline rallies. But Nadal hasn’t won 20 straight matches at the All England Club for nothing. The top seed battled back to win the third set to raise hopes of a first two-sets-to-love comeback in a Wimbledon final since 1927, when Henri Cochet defeated Bill Tilden.
Both players exchanged breaks of serve at the start of the fourth set, before Djokovic regained control to complete a 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory in two hours and 28 minutes of play to lift his third Grand Slam championship title. It capped a dream fortnight for the Serbian, who became the World No.1 after Wimbledon.
Reverberation: Djokovic finished off one of the Open Era’s greatest calendar season (70-6) by winning the US Open defeating Nadal in the final. He bulldozed the Spaniard in the entire season beating him in 6 consecutive finals. Nadal meanwhile had no answers to Djokovic’s onslaught even though he managed to win his 4th Davis Cup title with Spain.
2012 Australian Open Final – Djokovic d. Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5
Coming into the match: Djokovic was at the pinnacle of the ATP rankings as he entered the Australian Open in 2012. He had won the last 6 encounters against the Spaniard. Djokovic entered the match after winning a brutal SF against Scot Andy Murray in 4hrs and 50 min. Nadal was trying to get back in this rivalry and had gained some momentum after winning his 4th Davis Cup. He was through to his 2nd Australian Open Final after beating old nemesis Roger Federer in the SF.
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic extended his winning streak to seven straight matches over No. 2-ranked Rafael Nadal in the longest Grand Slam championship final on record over five hours and 53 minutes. It surpassed the previous record of four hours and 54 minutes when Mats Wilander defeated Ivan Lendl at the 1988 US Open. In a pulsating contest on Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Djokovic rallied from a 2-4 deficit in the fifth set, to fight back and claim a dramatic victory. He continued to narrow the gap in his head-to-head against Rafa to 14-16. Nadal had never previously lost a Grand Slam final after winning the first set.
Reverberation: Though Djokovic managed to win the final, Nadal actually began to neutralize this rivalry and got back against the Serb. The Mallorcan Matador managed to win 6 of the next 7 matches against his arch-rival.
2013 US Open Final – Nadal def. Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1
Coming into the match: Nadal was making a historic comeback in 2013 after an injury plagued 2012. He had won 9 titles (including his 8th French Open and also the Canada-Cincinnati double). He had lost just 3 matches all season and was attempting to win his 2nd US Open title.
Djokovic had won his 3rd straight Australian Open title (4th overall) but lost out in the SFs of the French Open to Nadal. He lost to Andy Murray in the finals of Wimbledon thus losing 4 of the last 5 GS Finals he had contested. He had also lost last 5 of the 6 meetings against Nadal.
In their third US Open final meeting (also 2010-11) and an Open Era record 37th meeting, Nadal exerted the early pressure, but it was Djokovic who turned the tables in the sixth game of the second set. The intensity rose early in the third set, as Djokovic broke Nadal in the third game only for Nadal to bounce back for 3-3 and ultimately break once again. Nadal stretched his lead to 3-0 in the fourth set and by the time he celebrated his 13th major crown, Djokovic had committed 53 unforced errors.
Spaniard dominated the extended rallies of five shots or more, winning 64 of 111 such points. The World No. 2 was lethal in the return game as well, converting on seven of 12 break point chances. Queen Sofia of Spain congratulated Nadal in the locker room after winning his second US Open crown.
Reverberation: Nadal regained the World No.1 ranking from Djokovic and went on to win 35+ matches on both Hard and Clay in the season (only player in the Open Era to achieve this). Djokovic had lost the last 5 Grand Slam finals out of the 6 he had contested. The Serb went on to reverse the losing streak against the Spaniard beating him 4 more times before losing in the 2014 French Open Finals. He also added German tennis legend Boris Becker to his coaching staff.