“These kind of mistakes can happen,” Rafael Nadal said after his 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 loss to Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros on Friday. “But if you want to win, you can’t make these mistakes.”

Nadal made an uncharacteristically high number of mistakes—55—in a match that, otherwise, was played at a stratospheric level for most of its four hours and 11 minutes. But he was talking about two in particular, which cost him the all-important 90-minute epic of a third set: The double fault he committed on the first point of the tiebreaker, and the wide-open forehand volley that he sent over the baseline, that would have tied the tiebreaker at 4-4.

As Rafa said, these mistakes can happen—and they do happen, to every player who has ever picked up a tennis racquet. But to see Nadal make them today is to be reminded, and amazed all over again, that they have almost never happened to him at Roland Garros.

Since 2005, Nadal has played 108 matches there, and he has won 105 of them. He has been taken to a fifth set twice. He’s 13-2 against Djokovic and Roger Federer. All of those times when Rafa could have chosen the wrong shot at the wrong time, when he could have let his nerves cost him a close set, when he could have struggled to find the motivation or just had a bad day like anyone else—he didn’t. So many times, when Nadal does make an error at Roland Garros, you’ll hear a commentator say, “This just shows he’s human after all.” I’d say it’s the opposite: To remember that Nadal is human at Roland Garros is to be reminded that what he has done at that venue for the last 16 years is anything but.

“Sometimes you win, sometime you lose,” Rafa said today. “I tried to give my best. Probably was not by best day out there.”

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“These kind of mistakes can happen,” said Rafael Nadal.

“These kind of mistakes can happen,” said Rafael Nadal.

Today belonged instead to Djokovic, which is fitting. If there’s anyone who is going to keep Nadal from playing his best at Roland Garros or anywhere else, it’s the world No. 1 and one of his two greatest rivals. Today was also a day when it seemed that, even though these two have played 58 times, we don’t get to see them face off against each other nearly enough. For artistry and physicality, there’s still nothing else like it in tennis, and no has ever painted the wide canvas of Court Philippe Chatrier to such brilliant and beautiful effect as they did for three sets.

They hit sharp-angled ground strokes that sent each skidding five feet past the doubles sidelines. They found the corners with down-the-line missiles. They brought each other to the net and sent each other scrambling back to the baseline. Nadal hooked a backhand pass from behind his body for a winner. Djokovic put up two sliding backhand lobs that dropped on the baseline. There were some points where it felt like they had just hit the 10 best shots you’d ever seen in your life. In 2013, when they were in their 20s, Nadal and Djokovic played a classic five-set semifinal on the same court. Shot for shot, this one, which was played when they’re 34 and 35, respectively, was better. France even broke its own Covid curfew to allow fans to stay for the fourth set. (A better solution, obviously, would have been to start today’s matches earlier.)

“Definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland Garros for me,” Djokovic said, “and top three matches that I ever played in my entire career, considering quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where he has had so much success and has been the dominant force in the last 15-plus years, and the atmosphere which was completely electric. For both players, a lot of support. Just amazing.”

“Definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland Garros for me,” Djokovic said.

“Definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland Garros for me,” Djokovic said.

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What made the difference? Why was Djokovic able to get his second win in nine tries against Nadal on the terre battue? We can point to the fact that, after going down 0-5, Djokovic was able to get his teeth into the match at the end of the first set. We can point to the winning drop shot that Djokovic hit to save a set point in the third set. We can point to Rafa’s botched forehand volley in the tiebreaker. But I thought one overarching quote from Rafa was telling:

Even if I fighted, that I putted a lot of effort, I mean, the position on the shots haven’t been that effective tonight. Against a player like him that takes the ball early, you are not able to take him out of his positions, then is very difficult, no? Rafael Nadal, now 105-3 at Roland Garros

I thought I could see the moment when Rafa realized this. It was 1-1 in the third set. Djokovic had won the second set, but Nadal had started the third with renewed energy. At 15-0, at the end of a brilliant side-to-side point, Nadal ripped a ball crosscourt that might have won him the point on most other days, against most other opponents. But Djokovic was standing there, waiting for it, and hit an easy forehand drop shot that Rafa had no chance to get. Something seemed to go out of Nadal after that, maybe some belief. He was broken a couple games later, and while he nearly came back to win the set, it always felt to me as if he was playing uphill.

“Even though I didn’t have such a great start, I was not too nervous because I felt like I was hitting the ball very well,” Djokovic said. “It was just a matter of me working my way into the match and adjusting to his ball, which is completely different than any other player’s ball.

“I was ready. I was feeling good mentally, physically. I was motivated. I had a really clear plan in tactics, what I needed to do in order to perform better than I have in last year’s final.”

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Their 58th meeting was one of their best.

Their 58th meeting was one of their best.

Afterward, Djokovic, despite his excitement over his win, seemed to understand that one loss doesn’t diminish what Nadal has done at Roland Garros.

“It’s hard to find words bigger than all the superlatives you can think of for Rafa’s achievements in Roland Garros,” he said. “Each time you step on the court with him, you know that you have to kind of climb Mt. Everest to win against this guy here.”

Earlier this week, Nadal admitted that his stats in Paris are “amazing.” Almost as amazing is the fact that Djokovic has now won 80 matches at Roland Garros, and has only one title to show for it—mostly because of Rafa. Djokovic earned his shot at No. 2 the hard way, and the right way, today.