French Open 2022 - Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic - five of the best matches from their rivalry
With a place in the French Open semi-finals up for grabs, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will face off for the 59th time when they meet under the lights in Paris. Injury problems have left Nadal saying he could walk away from the sport at any moment, so could this be the final time we see two greats of the game take part in a phenomenal battle of skill, power and agility?
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As Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic prepare to meet each other once again on the biggest stage, we have been sifting through the 58 previous occasions the giants of tennis have gone head-to-head in singles matches.
World No. 1 and defending French Open champion Djokovic has the edge in the statistics department, leading 30-28 over Nadal, whose love affair with Roland-Garros has seen him crowned champion on 13 occasions.
It would have been fitting to start our look back at this great rivalry with the first ever meeting, but that ended in something of a damp squib, with Djokovic retiring from their 2006 French Open quarter-final with Nadal two sets ahead.
In the early years, Nadal had the upper hand, winning five of their seven meetings in 2007, including in the semi-finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon - where Djokovic once again retired. However, the Serbian did take his first victory over Nadal, winning at the Miami Masters.
Onto 2008, and we reach our first classic clash between the pair, but we step away from the tour to do so…
Beijing Olympics semi-finals, 2008 - Nadal wins 6-4 1-6 6-4
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal - Medal ceremony - Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
Image credit: Getty Images
Making their Olympic debuts, Nadal and Djokovic collided in the semi-finals in Beijing - a match that marked their sixth and final meeting of the year. At 22, Nadal was starting to dominate the sport, playing with power and a service game many were finding too difficult to match.
Even more youthful at 21, Djokovic was displaying the skill and on-court grace we have since become so accustomed to.
Despite being broken twice early on in the first set, Djokovic fought his way back, but was unable to do enough to stop Nadal taking the opener, as both players exuded huge amounts of energy as they flew around the court to match each other's shots.
Djokovic’s response to going behind was quite magnificent, as he took the second set 6-1, before eventually being beaten in three sets. On Nadal’s match point, Djokovic failed to convert at overhead smash, putting it wide to hand the Spaniard victory and a place in the final, where he would go on to take gold.
Madrid Masters semi-finals, 2009 - Nadal wins 3-6 7-6(5) 7-6(9)
As if they were not already getting to know each other very well, 2009 would throw up yet more duels between the pair, with the Madrid Masters marking a third consecutive clay-court tournament in which they had been paired up.
The semi-final in Spain lasted four hours and three minutes, which, at the time, was the longest three-set singles match on the ATP Tour in the Open Era. The gruelling encounter saw Djokovic win more points on the day, but Nadal fought back from a set down, save three match points and take the next two by tie-break to progress.
It was voted as the best match of the year, but Djokovic has since admitted it took him a long time to get over the defeat.
Australian Open final, 2012 - Djokovic wins 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7(5) 7-5
Novak Djokovic, Rod Laver, Rafa Nadal, Australian Open 2012
Image credit: Reuters
As had already been proven, these two players were not afraid of going the distance and fighting until the death if it meant securing victory.
Lasting just shy of six hours, the 2012 Australian Open showdown between the pair became the longest Grand Slam final of the tie-break era.
Five pulsating sets saw Nadal take the lead, before Djokovic clawed himself to within one set of the trophy. However, Nadal was never going to give up that easily, and the tide turned as he pulled himself level before going 4-2 up in the deciding set.
Nadal was within two games of glory, but Djokovic fought back heroically to take the final set 7-5, claiming victory and extending his winning streak over his rival to seven matches.
Aside from the silverware, this was a significant moment for Djokovic, as it came off the back of winning three of the four majors in 2011, and breaking Nadal and Roger Federer’s dominance in the men’s game.
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French Open semi-finals, 2013 - Nadal wins 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7(3) 9-7
On the clay of Roland-Garros - where they will meet in their night time battle this week - Nadal and Djokovic served up a Paris classic at the semi-final stage in 2013.
At 6-5 in the fourth set, Nadal was just two points away from victory, but Djokovic broke his serve before winning the subsequent tie-break to take it to a deciding set.
There was to be no easy way out for either man, and 87 minutes later, Nadal finally came out on top, having fought back from 2-4 down to take the fifth set 9-7 and reach the final, where he beat his compatriot David Ferrer in straight sets.
Twelve months later and the pair met again in Paris, one stage further. Nadal came out on top once more, to collect his 14th career Grand Slam and become the first player to win the French Open five times in a row.
Elbow surgery had put Djokovic out of action for the back part of 2017, and when the new season started, the Serbian had looked far from his best in the first two majors of 2018. Scandalous to think, Djokovic had even slipped out of the world’s top 20.
It was not a simple start to his Wimbledon campaign either, coming through tricky ties with Kyle Edmund and Kei Nishikori.
But then, as Nadal stood before him in the semi-final on the London grass, something kicked in and the old Djokovic returned.
Under the Wimbledon roof, the pair traded long rallies, with Djokovic edging proceedings to take a 2-1 lead when play was halted at the end of the Friday night’s action.
Play resumed with Nadal taking the fourth set 6-3 to force a decider, which Djokovic battled through to win 10-8.
It was a match to be savoured with each player hitting 73 winners and only 42 unforced errors in five-and-a-quarter hours of play.
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