The Top 10 Matches of 2021, No. 1: Novak Djokovic d. Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros semifinalBy Dec 10, 2021
The Top 10 Matches of 2021, No. 2: Leylah Fernandez d. Elina Svitolina, US Open quarterfinalBy Dec 09, 2021
The Top 10 Matches of 2021, No. 3: Carlos Alcaraz d. Stefanos Tsitsipas, US Open third roundBy Dec 08, 2021
The Top 10 Matches of 2021, No. 4: Paula Badosa d. Victoria Azarenka, Indian Wells finalBy Dec 07, 2021
The Top 10 Matches of 2021, No. 5: Novak Djokovic d. Stefanos Tsitsipas, Roland Garros finalBy Dec 06, 2021
The Top 10 Matches of 2021, No. 6: Barbora Krejcikova d. Maria Sakkari, Roland Garros semifinalBy Dec 03, 2021
The Top 10 Matches of 2021, No. 7: Ashleigh Barty d. Karolina Pliskova, Wimbledon finalBy Dec 02, 2021
The Top 10 Matches of 2021, No. 8: Rafael Nadal d. Stefanos Tsitsipas, Barcelona finalBy Dec 01, 2021
The Top 10 Matches of 2021, No. 9: Naomi Osaka d. Garbiñe Muguruza, Australian Open Fourth RoundBy Nov 30, 2021
The Top 10 Matches of 2021, No. 10: Novak Djokovic d. Alexander Zverev, US Open SemifinalBy Nov 29, 2021
The Top 10 Matches of 2021, No. 1: Novak Djokovic d. Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros semifinal
No two players have ever painted the wide expanses of Court Philippe Chatrier to such brilliant effect as Djokovic and Nadal did in what was the match of the year.
Published Dec 10, 2021
Tennis fans have watched Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal play each other 58 times, but sometimes it seems as if that hasn’t been nearly enough. Their 58th meeting, in the semifinals at Roland Garros this year, was one of those times. Even at 34 and 35 years old, respectively, and even after a decade and a half on tour, nothing can match the combination of physicality and artistry that these two bring to a court when they put their unique talents up against each other.
Djokovic and Nadal had played three Grand Slam epics before this one: At the 2012 Australian Open, Roland Garros in 2013, and Wimbledon in 2018. This match didn’t go five sets, the way those did, but for two and half of its four hours, the Serb and the Spaniard pushed each other to greater heights than they ever had before. No one has ever painted the wide canvas of Court Philippe Chatrier to such brilliant and beautiful effect. While Djokovic spent the first set warming up, and Nadal spent the final set tiring out, they spent the middle two sets mesmerizing the world. It was so good that the French suspended their own COVID curfew to allow fans to stay and watch.
Djokovic and Nadal hit sharp-angled ground strokes that sent each other skidding five feet past the doubles sidelines. They found the corners with down-the-line missiles. They brought each other to net and sent each other scrambling back to the baseline. Nadal hooked a backhand pass from behind his body for a winner. Djokovic, in full slide, sent up two backhand lobs that dropped right on the baseline. There were some points where it felt as if they had just hit the 10 best shots you’d ever seen in your life. Eight years ago, when they were in their 20s, Nadal and Djokovic played a classic semifinal on the same court. Shot for shot, this one was better.
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“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.”
Coming in, Nadal had won 105 of 107 matches at Roland Garros, and seven of his eight previous meetings with Djokovic there. What made the difference this time? We can point to the fact that, after going down 0-5 to start, 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 a crucial, botched forehand volley by Nadal in the third-set tiebreaker. But I thought one overarching quote from Rafa was telling:
“Even if I fought, that I putted a lot of effort, I mean, the position on the shots haven’t been that effective tonight,” Nadal said. “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?”
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 another brilliant side to side point, Nadal ripped a ball crosscourt that would have won him the point on most other days, against most other opponents. But Djokovic was standing there, waiting for it, and he responded by floating back a simple 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.
Djokovic earned his shot at a second title the hard way, and the right way, with this victory. It may not be the greatest match of all time, or even the greatest among the Big 3’s many epics. But for two and a half hours, tennis has never been better.
“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.”
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 statistics in Paris are “amazing.” Almost as amazing is the fact that Djokovic has now won 81 matches at Roland Garros, and until this year he had just one title to show for it—mostly because of Rafa. Djokovic earned his shot at a second title the hard way, and the right way, with this victory. It may not be the greatest match of all time, or even the greatest among the Big 3’s many epics. But for two and a half hours, tennis has never been better.