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'It’s not like any other match': Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to meet for 58th time
Djokovic and Nadal won four-set quarterfinal battles on Wednesday at Roland Garros in setting the next installment of their storied rivalry.
Published Jun 10, 2021
“It’s not like any other match,” Novak Djokovic said of playing Rafael Nadal during his post-match press conference at Roland Garros on Wednesday. “Each time we face each other, there’s that extra tension and expectations. Just vibes are different walking on court with him.”
At that point, Djokovic hadn’t had much time to ponder his 58th meeting with Nadal, which will come in the semifinals on Friday. A few minutes earlier, the top seed had been busy letting out a primal scream on Court Philippe Chatrier after finishing off his quarterfinal opponent, Matteo Berrettini, 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5. It was a long and taxing match, one that had begun with the welcome sound of fans cheering and ended in dreaded silence. Djokovic had done this best to keep his cool, but by the time he reached match point, he couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“This match had it all: falls, crowd, break,” said Djokovic, who took a hard tumble to the clay in the fourth set. “It was a lot of intensity. I just felt under tension the entire time…That’s why it was just super, super stressful to constantly be under pressure on my service games because his service games were quite smooth with the big serve.”
“Yeah, the reaction in the end was just me liberating that tension that was building up for the entire match.”
A few hours earlier, Nadal had been just as pleased to close out his own four-set quarterfinal, over Diego Schwartzman, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0. There were no primal screams from Rafa, just his traditional celebratory “Vamos!” and a warm handshake with his opponent. This was the third time in the last four years that Nadal had beaten Schwartzman at Roland Garros, and the second time that Schwartzman had taken a set.
There was a sense today, as well as in his fourth-round win over Jannik Sinner, that Nadal needed to be challenged before he could find his usual sense of major-tournament urgency. In both matches, he traded breaks in the early going with his opponents, and gave back leads he normally wouldn’t give back. But when urgency was finally needed, he found it. Against Schwartzman, that came with the two tied at one-set apiece, and the always-scrappy Argentine holding his own in the third set. In his 100-odd matches in Paris, Nadal has only trailed by a two sets to one a couple of times; he didn’t want to be in that position today.
“I have been in a tricky situation, 4-3 for him in the third set, one set all,” Nadal said. “Then was the moment to calm myself, to think about the things that I was doing well in practices, just to try to make it happen. That was the moment to make it happen because was a tough, tough moment. I’m very proud that in that moment probably the best level of tennis that I had I showed up until that 4-3 against, until the end of the match, with not many mistakes, hitting a lot of winners, starting to hit the forehand down the line, playing more angles, playing longer with my forehand cross, returning a little bit better.”
So what, if anything, do Wednesday’s wins by Djokovic and Nadal mean for their semifinal? As Djokovic said, everything is different when these two walk on court together. And as Nadal said, there’s no comparison between the mindset that he has against someone like Schwartzman, and the mindset he has against Djokovic.
“The best thing is you know that you need to play your best tennis,” Nadal said of facing Djokovic. “It’s a match that you know what you have to do if you really want to have chances to success and to keep going in the tournament. Always a big challenge. That’s something that is good because in some way we are practicing, we are living the sport for these moments. So that’s a good thing.”
In other words, he won’t have any trouble finding a sense of urgency in this match. Rafa knows exactly what level of intensity he’ll need to bring from the first point.
I think we know what Nadal’s attitude and mindset will be. The question for me is how Djokovic will approach this match. I liked the calm sense of purpose he brought to the court against Berrettini, even if it did lead to an explosion at the end. Djokovic says he’s confident that he can beat Nadal, and he did take a set from him in the Rome final. But last fall, when they played in the Roland Garros final, Djokovic didn’t appear to have much self-belief. He was coming off a draining five-set win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis, and for whatever reason he couldn’t muster much resistance in his straight-set loss to Rafa. Will it be different this time? His emotion today would seem to say yes.
“The quality and the level of tennis that I’ve been playing in the last three, four weeks on clay—Rome, Belgrade and here—is giving me good sensations and feelings ahead of [this] match,” Djokovic said. “I’m confident. I believe I can win, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Let’s have a great battle.”
The question will be whether Djokovic can maintain that positivity even after he’s felt Nadal’s topspin on his strings, after he’s chased his shots from corner to corner, after he’s gone down a break or lost a close set or given away a lead. Djokovic will likely be lifted by having fans in the arena, most of whom won’t be rooting against him. But he won’t have many good memories of facing Rafa to call on. Perhaps the most important stat in this match is Nadal’s 7-1 record against Djokovic at Roland Garros. If Djokovic falls behind early, will he get that “here we go again” feeling?
Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanesvic, says he thinks it helps his player to face Nadal in a semifinal, rather than a final. I’m not really sure why: It’s true that Rafa is 13-0 in finals at Roland Garros, but he’s 13-0 in semis, too.
Let’s have a great battle. Winner: Nadal