You remember Big 4 tennis, right? Dazzling rallies, careening athleticism, ambition and sportsmanship in (mostly) equal measures?
“I missed it,” Novak Djokovic said today, speaking for just about every tennis fan.
With Andy Murray sidelined, Djokovic struggling, and Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer seemingly residing on separate tours this season, it had been a while since we were treated to tennis royalty going toe to toe. It had been even longer since we had seen the most hard-fought of all the Big 4 rivalries, Nadal vs. Djokovic, give us an old-fashioned, knock-down, drag-out battle. The last of them had come two years ago in Rome, when Nole held off Rafa in two tight, thrilling, see-saw sets.
In those days, Djokovic was the king of the men’s game, and Nadal was clawing his way back up the totem pole. But the beauty of the Big 4 is that, while the players live on, the hierarchies between them remain in constant flux. This time, when they met again in Rome on Saturday, Nadal was the top seed, and Djokovic was the man trying to climb the ladder and rejoin him at the ATP summit.
In the span of the last week, Djokovic almost made it there. On Thursday, he played his best set of tennis in two years in beating Albert Ramos-Viñolas. On Friday, he competed with all the anger and gusto of his glory years in coming back to beat Kei Nishikori. And on Saturday he pushed Nadal to come up with his best tennis of the year to sneak past him 7-6 (4), 6-3.
WATCH: Match point from Nadal's win over Djokovic in the Rome semifinals:
Djokovic controlled his share of the rallies, and won many of them with turn-back-the-clock lasers to the corners. In the first set, he came back from 2-5, and, after knocking off a powerful forehand, stood knotted with Rafa at 3-3 in the tiebreaker. From there, Nadal raised his game to a place no one else could reach on clay. He hit a full-cut, down-the-line forehand winner for 4-3, and closed the set with a backhand down-the-line winner on the outside of the sideline. While Djokovic raged to his coaches, he could take satisfaction in being the man who pushed Rafa to those heights.
“Rafa was just better in important moments,” Djokovic said. “He just managed to play right shots, and he deserved to win.”
“I don’t think there was too much of a difference, which is great news for me.”
The difference between the Djokovic who lost two tight sets to Nadal in Rome this year, and the Djokovic who won two tight sets against him there in 2016, was summed up by two points they played at 4-2 in the first set. The first point may have been the best of the match, a cat-and-mouse rally that took them scrambling up and back and side to side, before Djokovic finally closed it with a volley. Djokovic threw his arms in the air as he walked back to the baseline, and the crowd chanted his name. But on the next point, Djokovic tried a patented shot of his—the down-the-line backhand—and missed it wide. He was ready to play well, but not quite ready to do it for long enough to beat Nadal on clay.
Which is no shame, especially when Nadal is at his current, world-beating level. While Djokovic wasn’t ready to sustain his excellent play, Rafa was confident enough in his tactics and his execution to raise his game when he needed to. From 3-3 in the first-set tiebreaker, he hit a forehand winner, won two more points with forcing forehands, and closed with that backhand that clipped the sideline.
“I think I played with the right determination,” said Nadal, who now trails Djokovic 25-26 in their career head to head. “The important points, later in the tiebreak. I think I played aggressive with my forehand...The dynamic of the match was a little bit more for me.”
That dynamic will likely remain the same through Roland Garros and perhaps beyond. But for the first time in a long time, Djokovic has shown that he can still compete at the very top of the sport—“Week by week,” Nadal said today, “the normal thing is that [Djokovic] is gonna find his way and his level again.”
Rafa and Nole have played 51 times, more than any other male pair of the Open Era. Happily, now we know their final chapter is still to be written.
ATP Rome (5/13 - 5/20)
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