“Watching Rafa play at Roland Garros is like watching your favorite film for me,” said two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka tweeted when Rafael Nadal made short work of Cameron Norrie in the third round of the French Open. “You enjoy it a lot, but you already know what’s going to happen.”
That was true … until it wasn’t. Nadal has fought his way to the semi-finals as always, expanding his last winning streak from Roland Garros to 35 games and advancing to 105-2 all-time in Paris. But in the semifinals old rival Novak Djokovic beat him to 105-3. Nadal opened a 5-0 lead in the first set, but Djokovic landed a lot of punches, consistently looked like the fresher player and beat the champion in four sets, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2.
However, this result line does not do the game justice. The first three sets lasted 3½ hours, and the plot twists and turns came quickly and fiercely. The two combined 98 winners, saved a total of 24 breakpoints and participated in 57 rallies with nine or more shots. Announcer Mary Carillo called it her favorite match between Djokovic and Nadal in the third set. Things fizzled out in the end, and Djokovic won the last six games to clean things up. But that was a spectacular match.
Where is Friday’s game in Djokovic-Nadal’s oeuvre?
This rivalry is characterized by extreme swing fluctuations. Nadal found his top gear on tour earlier than Djokovic and won five of the first six matches between them; then they shared four. Nadal won seven of the next eight, then Djokovic found himself and won 10 of 12. Nadal regained the upper hand and won six of seven over the next two years, but Djokovic won 11 of 12 from 2013-2016 while Nadal was injured struggled and form questions. But then Djokovic dealt with his own injuries and problems, and Nadal had won five of the last eight – all wins came on clay – before Djokovic’s win on Friday.
For such an even streak – Djokovic has 30 wins over Nadal’s 28 – a large percentage of games were in even sets in one way or another. Still, if you play 58 times, 29 times in tournament finals, you’re going to be playing some classics, and they’ve had their fair share. Let’s rank their top 10 battles.
10th French Open Final 2014
Winner: Nadal 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4
Nadal in top form. After an Andy Murray teardown, Nadal couldn’t quite hit the same high notes, so he overtook Djokovic instead. Djokovic struck quickly, but Nadal took control late in the second set. After a break for the fourth time, Djokovic got back to even things at 4all, but then he blinked. He made a double mistake on Nadal’s first match point to give the Spaniard his fifth French Open title in a row.
9th Miami Finals 2011
Winner: Djokovic 4-6, 6-3, 7-6
Undefeated in 2011 to date, Djokovic controlled most of the game, but Nadal won six of eight breakpoints in the first set – four on serve, two on Djokovic – before the game turned into a big serve late on. The third set quickly turned into a tiebreaker, with Nadal making a double mistake 2-2. Djokovic’s lead quickly increased to 6-2, but Nadal saved two match points before a Djokovic forehand winner sealed the deal.
8th Wimbledon Final 2011
Winner: Djokovic 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3
Djokovic was 0-5 against Nadal in the slams so far, but after winning the Australian Open in spring 2011 and beating Nadal four times in a row, he was ultra-confident, and it showed. The 24-year-old made only 16 unforced mistakes in four sets, overtook Nadal and officially became the dominant force in the sport. Nadal had won four of the last five slams, but this was the first of three consecutive finals he would lose to Djokovic.
7th US Open Final 2010
Winner: Nadal 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2
The downside of the battle on Friday in Paris. Nadal won his third major title in a row and became the sixth player to win a career grand slam by trading heavyweight blows with Djokovic and eventually wearing him down. Djokovic celebrated the biggest win of his career, a five-setter over Roger Federer, and he saved 20 of 26 breakpoints, but Nadal tee-off on his second serve towards the end of the game and pulled away.
6th final of the French Open 2012
Winner: Nadal 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5
This was their fourth battle at Roland Garros, and Djokovic had yet to win one set. Nadal had already beaten him twice on clay this spring and that match looked pretty routine from the goals. But then Djokovic started landing some haymakers. In the third set he broke Nadal three times, then immediately again in the fourth set. But then Nadal did what Nadal always seemed to be doing: break back immediately, then just break his opponent.
5th semifinals of the French Open 2021
Winner: Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2
Had this been a best-of-three match, it might have scored even higher. Nadal took a 5-0 lead and was able to easily eliminate some of Djokovic’s early drop-shots. But Djokovic seemed primarily to be trying to take his legs away from him, and in the end it worked. Djokovic controlled the second set and served the third 5-4, but Nadal did Nadal’s things to rally and send off a tie-break. However, a Djokovic ace gave him a set point and he finished the set. Nadal quickly slumped in game four to raise hopes of a rally, but Djokovic won the last six games.
4th Madrid semi-finals 2009
Winner: Nadal 3-6, 7-6, 7-6
Three sentences, four hours. Djokovic really seemed to be the better of the two opponents most of the time, but Nadal saved four breakpoints in the second set and took a tie-break victory. In the third set, Djokovic got an early break before – of course – Nadal took it right back. In the decisive tie-break, Djokovic took match points 6: 5, 7: 6 and 9: 8, but Nadal saved them all with two big winners after huge rallies and a big serve. Nadal got the last three points and that was it.
Now to the three classics:
3rd Wimbledon semi-finals 2018
Winner: Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8
Djokovic’s “I’m back” moment. In his first slam semi-final since the US Open 2016, Djokovic had to beat Nadal almost twice. First he won two out of three sets and won the third in an epic 13-11 tiebreaker. But the curfew occurred and the fighters had to return the next day. After Nadal got the fourth set, the two got involved in their biggest set. Djokovic served from a 15-40 jam at 4 all and 7 all, and Nadal had to save a match point at 7-8.
Finally, after 5 hours and 15 minutes, Djokovic collapsed. Then he defeated Kevin Anderson to win his first slam in over two years.
2nd semifinals of the French Open 2013
Winner: Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 9-7
After missing a few months with a knee injury, Nadal put fifth gear in Paris, overtaking Fabio Fognini, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka to reach the semi-finals, and then won two out of three sets to face Djokovic. He broke twice in the fourth set, but Djokovic broke back both times, winning the fourth set tiebreak and quickly pausing in the fifth set. But he accidentally hit the net and dropped a volley on two at 4-3 and Nadal fell back.
Djokovic missed several opportunities with playful overheads and eventually Nadal sealed the deal with a break in the 16th game of the set. Then he swept David Ferrer to win the No. 8 French Open title.
1st final of the Australian Open 2012
Winner: Djokovic 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5
If these two ever top this game, it will be the culmination of what this sport can produce. At some point this fight went from being athletic to being existential. They fought 5 hours and 53 minutes in this one. Both had to sit during the award ceremony.
After dominating the third set, Djokovic almost sealed the deal in the fourth. But Nadal saved three breakpoints to turn it into a tiebreaker and took it 7-5. At 4-4 in the fifth set they produced one of their biggest rallies, a 31-shot epic in which Djokovic stayed on his back after a mistake. Nadal took that game but somehow Djokovic rallied to win the last three and the game.