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The Volley: Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal quarterfinal redux triggers rivalry tribute at Roland Garros
Before the Serbian and the Spaniard kick off their 59th clash on Tuesday, a look back on what makes a rivalry, and going deep on what makes them great.
Published May 30, 2022
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It was always meant to be: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal held their seedings to guarantee the 59th match of their storied rivalry at Roland Garros. More familiar with championship collisions, the two will play only their sixth quarterfinal since meeting for the first time in 2006—at this very tournament...in this very round.
David Kane and Stephanie Livaudais break down the latest Rafole redux and ask the tough questions: what makes a rivalry and, more importantly, what makes a rivalry great?
David Kane: I couldn’t be happier to take on a rivalry discussion with you, Steph—my very own nemesis. I hope the day comes when we, too, are breaking down tennis’ big picture close to 60 times, but it seems we may have a decade or two to go before we match the standard set by Djokovic and Nadal.
Neither looked especially spectacular in the lead-up to Roland Garros, so are you surprised to see this breathlessly projected quarterfinal take place?
Stephanie Livaudais: Considering how Nadal practically limped off the court in Rome, it’s pretty surprising to see him go this far at a Grand Slam—but of course, since this is Roland Garrosm maybe I’m 30% less surprised than I’d normally be.
Djokovic, less so. A lot has been made of his time away from the courts, sidelined from most of the first quarter as a result of his own life choices, but after a few weeks he has found his footing. He looked atrocious in his first match back in Monte Carlo, but by the end of Rome he had bageled Stefanos Tsitsipas and won the title without dropping a set.
So, what happened in Monte Carlo happened. What happened in Madrid happened. What happened in Rome happened(!!)
And now we’re at Roland Garros, where they’re meeting for the 10th time—and back where they first faced each other, way back in the 2006 quarterfinals.
Based on that first meeting—which ended in a 6-4, 6-4 (ret.) win for Nadal via a Djokovic retirement—it would have been hard to believe this would grow into the most prolific men’s rivalry in the Open Era.
DK: Turns out you can’t judge a 59-chapter book by its cover! At the same time, these three Roland Garros quarterfinals serve as interesting inflection points in the so-called Rafole Rivalry: 2006 saw Nadal at his unbeaten best against a decidedly undercooked Djokovic, while 2015 saw the Serb at last conquer the King of Clay at his favorite tournament. This latest edition ostensibly features the two on more even footing, especially in the wake of Djokovic’s second Roland Garros win over Nadal coming only last year.
It’s crazy to think that Djokovic and Nadal can have a better rivalry at one tournament than some will in their entire careers, but this is the stratosphere we find ourselves in for the next 36 hours. Certainly frequency helps add steam to a rivalry, but what else has made their matches so compelling?
Good rivalries are all about contrasts, and for Djokovic and Nadal, their styles of play and on-and-off-court personalities couldn’t be more different...
SL: It’s all about contrasts, and for these two, their styles of play and on-and-off-court personalities couldn’t be more different. Nadal has a very distinct game: he’s a lefty, uses heavy topspin and, for years, employed a very physical approach. It’s very different to how Djokovic plays, which would be considered the epitome of the modern, all-court game, one that can translate to any surface. When Nadal and Djokovic were first rising up the ranks, they were also frequently compared to Roger Federer, which drove those contrasts even harder.
And that extended off the court, too. I’m sure both are great people, but Nadal has built his ‘humble guy from a small village’ persona into his identity, and as a foil to Djokovic’s slightly flashier-by-comparison Monte Carlo-living, New Age, crystal-filled lifestyle.
All of that is heightened by the fact that they’ve never met earlier than the quarterfinals in any single match of their careers. (The only exception: representing Spain and Serbia in the first round of the 2009 Davis Cup.) When the stakes are that high, and the contrast is so pronounced, it adds an inherent sense of awe and drama to their matches.
DK: In this instance, I would also add that the overall closeness of their rivalry compounds its near-mythical status: Djokovic currently leads 30-28, a massive departure from when Nadal led 16-7 at the end of 2010—with a straight-sets win on the indoor hard courts of the ATP Finals, no less! Going back to some frequent match-ups of the '80s and early '90s, quantity didn’t always translate to quality. Just ask Pam Shriver, who was the unfortunate recipient of a 40-3 head-to-head against doubles partner Martina Navratilova.
Though Nadal and Djokovic are close in age, there was even an element of the generational clashes we’re seeing again with the emergence of Carlos Alcaraz. Nadal had won multiple majors before Djokovic won his first, and fans got to see Djokovic improve in real time, in much the same way Navratilova made the physical changes necessary to gain the upper hand on Chris Evert. By 2011, Djokovic had made his first big cut into their head-to-head and won seven straight matches—all in finals—which led to the oft-discussed Devolution of the Nadal/Djokovic handshake.
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SL: Watching that video for the first time is not only lowkey hilarious, but it also makes me wonder about how players at the top can go about maintaining friendships—or even just friendly dynamics, in general—with their rivals while competing time and time again.
I imagine it’s easier when the head-to-head is leaning firmly in your direction, like during Nadal’s era of dominance you referenced at the start of their rivalry. Conversely, when you’re always second banana, it’s easier to play the gracious loser.
Because if you recall, Djokovic and Nadal were actually pretty friendly back then. Some would even call them friends? They even shared team personnel at one point, namely Nadal’s longtime PR agent, Benito Perez-Barbadillo. Djokovic was pretty tight with Team Nadal, illustrated by his presence during one of the lowest moments of Nadal’s career: his withdrawal from 2009 Wimbledon due to knee injury after his first loss at Roland Garros.
From Howard Fendrich, of the Associated Press:
After shaking up the tournament, Nadal sat on a couch in a players' lounge area, chatting for quite awhile with his spokesman, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, and Djokovic. As it approached 10 p.m.—later, even, than the finishing time of his epic match against Federer a year ago—Nadal finally rose to leave. That trio, along with Uncle Toni, walked toward one of the black steel gates that guard the All England Club's exits…
DK: That is a spectacular artifact you dug up, one that will only add further fuel to our personal rivalry in the days and weeks to come. But it would explain why, though Djokovic and Nadal’s relationship has undoubtedly cooled, it has never sunk to the levels of animus we’ve seen discussed by other rivals.
Navratilova and Evert famously ended their doubles partnership when the former’s team felt she and Evert were too friendly; it wasn’t until the mid-'80s that the two could share a genuine laugh. Former Olympic doubles champions Federer and Stan Wawrinka had their own spat that spilled into the sidelines during the 2014 ATP Finals.
It turns out we can’t all replicate the friendly rivalry exemplified by real-life sisters Venus and Serena Williams, who never let a disappointment come between them in 31 pro-level matches—and surely countless more through childhood and early adolescence. At the same time, the majority of their matches have often gotten stick for lacking the fire many want from an elite rivalry. Do head-to-heads have to be full of classics or have evenly distributed results—asking for Serena and Maria Sharapova—to be considered a rivalry?
But the better question may be: who wins a rivalry? Does it come down to head-to-head or overall resume?
The irony, of course, is that we should be celebrating the latest edition of Djokovic-Nadal, just as both appear poised to be usurped by mutual rival Carlos Alcaraz...
SL: I think it’s tempting to hone in on the head-to-heads and break down each win and its significance in real time. While the rivalry is still active, momentum swings are still possible and big titles are still at stake. But history ultimately judges who is the better player, and for that we’d have to look at their resumes when all is said and done.
Part of what makes things so complicated for Djokovic and Nadal are how evenly matched their resumes are—you can cherry pick stats to infinity based on which measures of GOATness you put on your well-maintained spreadsheet. Does it matter that Nadal has more Grand Slams than Djokovic (21 to 20) and has defeated him in more Grand Slam matches (10 to 7), or that Djokovic had defeated Nadal in more matches overall (30-28) or at the Masters 1000 level (16-13)?
We’ll only be able to judge which stats actually matter after their careers are done, or one of them retires and leaves the rivalry set… But that’s not very fun, is it?
DK: I appreciate your Rolex-adjacent “No numbers, just vibes” approach, but I do think there’s something to be said about final tallies having narrative sway. Navratilova ended her rivalry with Evert a mere six matches ahead, but that was enough for many to declare her the superior combatant.
I also think you can be second best in a match-up and have a better career than your nemesis. Venus Williams never got on top of her head-to-head with Martina Hingis, but has enjoyed a career that far surpassed that of the Swiss Miss.
Do head-to-heads have to be full of classics or have evenly distributed results—asking for Serena and Maria Sharapova—to be considered a rivalry?
Bringing it back to Tuesday: Nadal can’t end the week with a better head-to-head with Djokovic, but he could further extend his Slam advantage. How do stakes like that impact this particular Big 3 permutation, given fewer of these late-stage scrimmages have, of late, involved Federer?
SL: It feels like another turning point in the Big 3’s history, with Rafa and Novak preparing to do what was previously unthinkable when they first met in 2006: leave Federer in the dust. At least, in terms of numbers. The winner tomorrow could go on to play the French Open final, and have a chance to either pull away from the pack entirely (Nadal) or put his name firmly back in the Grand Slam GOAT race (Djokovic)—either way, Federer will be left with 20 major titles…
DK: Plus several Rolexes!
SL: ...An incredible achievement, sure, but no longer the standard-setting figure it used to be.
But what’s perhaps more curious is how, regardless of which of Nadal or Djokovic come out on top tomorrow, theirs is a rivalry that’s already being eclipsed by another one thanks to Carlos Alcaraz. He already defeated both of them on his way to the Madrid Open title, and some oddsmakers are giving him just as much, if not more, of a chance to win the title as them.
DK: That’s the great thing about rivalries: they’re the game within the game, and who better to up-end the seemingly eternal status quo than the robot hybrid who combines Djokovic’s technique and Federer’s variety with Nadal’s execution? And across the draw, Alcaraz may soon find his own contemporary rival in Holger Rune.
Here’s to 60 of those matches between now and 2040!