Three historical implications of Nadal vs. Djokovic LIX—Rafa's memorable win over Novak at Roland GarrosBy Jun 01, 2022
Alexander Zverev has surgery to repair torn ligaments in ankleBy Jun 07, 2022
Long after he had nothing left to prove, Rafael Nadal showcased mastery of the clay-court chess match yet again to make it 14 for 14 in Roland Garros finalsBy Jun 05, 2022
The eternal now of Rafael Nadal: A journey of endurance, patience, and suffering for the Roland Garros titleBy Jun 05, 2022
Rafael Nadal wins record-extending 22nd Grand Slam title with incomparable 14th final-round victory at Roland GarrosBy Jun 05, 2022
Preview: Will Rafael Nadal move to 14-0 in Roland Garros championships against first-time major finalist Casper Ruud?By Jun 04, 2022
"She's always hitting winners": Six months after trusting her talent like never before, Iga Swiatek is the one setting new standards in ground-stroke prowessBy Jun 04, 2022
Coco Gauff's Paris education continues after Roland Garros final defeat to Iga SwiatekBy Jun 04, 2022
Flawless Iga Swiatek sweeps to Roland Garros title, conquers Coco Gauff in finalBy Jun 04, 2022
Casper Ruud beat Marin Cilic at Roland Garros by channeling the man he’ll play in his first major final: Rafael NadalBy Jun 03, 2022
Three historical implications of Nadal vs. Djokovic LIX—Rafa's memorable win over Novak at Roland Garros
As their rivalry has evolved—strengthening both men—Wimbledon looms even larger.
Published Jun 01, 2022
By the time Rafael Nadal finished his post-match press conference Wednesday morning, it was nearly 2:00 a.m. As always, he’d labored hard, taking nearly four-and-a-half hours to beat Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4).
Said Nadal, “Well, of course we have a lot of history together, no? A lot important moments playing against each other. That's the true. In that case always is a special match, play against Novak, no?”
Their Roland Garros match marked the 59th time these two have met—the most prolific rivalry in the history of men’s tennis in the Open era. Naturally, Nadal’s victory triggered a wave of implications. Here are three macro notions:
1. Wimbledon will loom large for both Nadal and Djokovic—the two top favorites
Eight months ago, Djokovic stood one US Open title run away from becoming the first man in 52 years to win all four majors in a calendar year—the Grand Slam, last accomplished by Rod Laver in 1969. But it didn’t happen, Djokovic toppled in the final by Daniil Medvedev. Since then, two more Slams have gone by without Djokovic raising the champion’s trophy. The last time three straight majors went by without a Djokovic triumph was in June 2018; his last Slam win at that point was the 2016 French Open. No doubt the Serbian will be massively motivated to win Wimbledon for the fourth consecutive time.
Meanwhile, Nadal is two match wins away from earning Slam No. 22—two ahead of both Djokovic and Roger Federer. Considering that last fall, Nadal wondered if he’d ever compete again, this is remarkable, a bonus bounty for Nadal lovers. Then there’s this to consider: Should Nadal win Roland Garros this year, for the first time in his career, he’ll be halfway to a calendar Slam. As this year rolled on, amid Nadal’s cracked rib and foot troubles, my thinking was that he was likely to miss Wimbledon. But with a pair of Slams on his 2022 resume, dare Nadal pass it up?
Amid all the blossoming story lines of this year—of rising star Carlos Alcaraz; of US Open champion Medvedev and others banned from Wimbledon; of the likes of Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Taylor Fritz and many more young hopefuls—the two top favorites at Wimbledon will be the 36-year-old Nadal and 35-year-old Djokovic.
2. The Djokovic-Nadal rivalry is a relationship, and it’s made them both better players
If in one sense competition is the quest to squash an opponent, it also shares common ground with healthy relationships: two people, each asking questions of one another, each daring the other to dig deep, find new answers and become that much better.
It’s been enthralling to see the way Djokovic and Nadal have queried one another for so long. Who better than Nadal motivated Djokovic to address his early career fitness issues? Who more than Djokovic compelled Nadal to improve his serve and down-the-line forehand? Those two questions alone have propelled this rivalry to new heights. Toss in matters of footwork, volleys, service returns, court coverage, as well as the pursuit of more and more Grand Slam singles titles, and you have one fierce, enduring, captivating dialogue.
Amid these demands, it naturally makes sense that the quality of the tennis would improve, or else one player would be left behind. Over the course of playing 80 matches versus one another from 1973 to 1988 Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert got increasingly better, their best battles coming some 60 matches into their unsurpassed Open era rivalry. (Navratilova won 43 matches, Evert 37), Of the 164 matches Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall played versus one another between 1963 and 1977 (89 to 75, Laver), their greatest was arguably No. 159—the 1972 WCT Dallas final, which Rosewall win in a fifth-set tiebreaker. All four of these players were in their 30s during their most magnificent moments.
In this sense, Djokovic and Nadal might well have a degree of gratitude towards one other. Call it a non-verbal form of connection and appreciation.
“Of course, we all love each other,” Hall of Famer Yannick Noah once told me about his rivals, “but we just don’t want to admit it.”
Wimbledon draws unveiled! Serena to face Harmony Tan; favorable openers for Djokovic and Nadal
Among the intriguing first-rounders include Nick Kyrgios-Paul Jubb and Sloane Stephens-Zheng Qinwen.
3. Nadal and Djokovic are benefitting from their competitive modern era in a variety of ways
One way to view history is to understand the similarities between eras, particularly in matters of politics, economics, religion or other abstract societal values. But few things more than sports reveal that history is also the study of differences.
Tennis has looked very different in the 21st century. Start with vast increases in prize money that make it possible for players to support themselves. Increased financial resources make it possible to afford a team of trainers that can keep a player healthier for longer. Those experts are more informed than ever in matters of fitness and nutrition. Surfaces are also more homogenous than ever, making surface specialists—a big server on grass, a grinder on clay—far less likely to break through at a specific major. As recently as the late 1980s, a great many players skipped the Australian Open. Since 2001, there have been 32 seeds at the majors, a mild form of competitive protection that makes the path forward easier for top players.
All of these changes increase the likelihood that the greats will meet frequently. Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe only played one another 14 times (7-7) before a world-weary Borg left the game at the age of 26. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi met 34 times (20-14, Sampras). Sampras was not nearly the force on clay he was on other surfaces. Agassi skipped three Wimbledons early in his career, did not play the Australian Open until he was 24 and has publicly admitted there were many stages when he was hardly motivated to compete anywhere.
But Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have continuously circled the globe in pursuit of all four majors…on surfaces that play fairly similarly…guarded in the first two rounds from meeting any player ranked inside the Top 32…aided by pit crews that have taken the care and maintenance of an athlete to new heights. And yes, there is also the reality that these three are incredibly skilled. Besides the 59 matches Nadal and Djokovic have played versus one another (30-29, Djokovic), Djokovic has played Federer 50 times (27-23, Djokovic), while Nadal and Federer have had 40 battles (24-16, Nadal).
“So yeah, between Novak, Roger, myself, we have an amazing story together facing each other in the most important matches for such a long time,” said Nadal. “So that makes the things more special and more emotional.
“But as I said, from my perspective, of course there is always a conversation about the player who finish with more slams or who is the best of the history, but from my perspective doesn't matter that much. We achieve our dreams. We make history in this sport because we did things that didn't happen before.”