Djokovic, Nadal and the Inevitable End
Something strange happened late in the fourth set of the 59th meeting between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. This was Tuesday night, Paris, the French Open quarterfinal but, realistically, also the French Open final.
There were all sorts of history markers surrounding this one — the first match ever between players who had each won 20 grand slams, the first match ever between players who had each won 300-plus grand slam matches, the first match ever between players who had each won 1,000 matches total, etc. — and for three and a half sets there was nothing to separate the legends. Nadal had won the first set, Djokovic the second, Nadal the third, and Djokovic was getting ready to serve out the fourth.
This was a match of deuces, an endless array of deuces, of break points spurned, of clean winners somehow coming back over the net, of momentum stopping and starting and stopping again, of impossible shots that followed impossible shots. Nadal turns 36 in a couple of days, Djokovic turned 35 a few days ago, and still, somehow, they play tennis like this, like nobody else in the world.
But, beyond that, whenever we see Nadal and Djokovic play, we understand that there’s something personal between them, something only they fully understand, something neither one really talks about. No two men on the ATP tour have played each other so often. Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe played each other only 14 times. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi played each other 34 times. Nadal has faced his friend and nemesis Roger Federer 40 times.
Nadal-Djokovic, then, by sheer numbers, is a wholly different category: 59 matches over 16 years, the first here in Paris when they were still kids, the last perhaps again in Paris as they approach middle age. They once played the longest match in grand slam history, in Australia. They once traded brilliance in Madrid. At Wimbledon one year, they played one of the greatest grass-court matches ever played, and in New York they played a match for the ages, and then there was Miami and Toronto and … heck, last year, in Paris, they might have played the single best set of tennis of the Open Era.
But unlike Borg and McEnroe, Sampras and Agassi — or other transcendent rivalries like Ali-Frazier, Evert-Navratilova, Nicklaus-Watson — there seems nothing between them except for the tennis. Do they like each other? Do they loathe each other? Even now, after all the matches, all the scars, all the celebrations, it isn’t entirely clear. They seem to be neither friends nor enemies but instead strangers who just met on a plane and found that they are the two best tennis players on earth.
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Listen to Nadal talk about Federer (and Federer talk about Nadal) and you can feel the warmth they feel for each other. It doesn’t come across the same way with Nadal and Djokovic. They have spoken in admiration about each other but without much affection. Their post-match handshakes, no matter who wins, tend to be perfunctory.
Every now and again, one or the other will talk about how after they retire they might get together for a beer and talk over the memories. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. You never can tell. But for now, and the last 16 years, their connection has been on the court. Their connection involves Djokovic trying to keep the ball deep to avoid getting obliterated by the Nadal forehand. Their connection involves Nadal bracing himself to punch back another blistering Djokovic service return at his feet.
They bring the best out of each other on a tennis court.
I suppose you could ask: Isn’t that enough?
On Tuesday, they again brought the best out of each other, often playing the most sublime and wonderful tennis. To go back to the start, everybody knew that Nadal needed to be the more urgent player. He has been dealing this year with a broken rib and, more significantly, a degenerative foot issue that has made his daily tennis life torturous. He has not hidden from the possibility that this will be his last French Open. He also has not said it out loud. He will talk about that only when this is over.
As such, he was the player who needed to get off to a fast start, and he did, by breaking Djokovic in the first game, holding off a couple of Djokovic challenges, and winning the first set. He then raced to a 3-0 lead in the second set, breaking Djokovic twice. His forehand was triumphant, his defense impenetrable — there seemed nothing for Djokovic to do other than accept the inevitable.
At that point, I wrote on Twitter that Nadal had left earth and was playing tennis from another galaxy.
But Djokovic is also not the kind to accept the inevitable. He too, in addition to being a tennis genius, is a fighter. He beat Federer at Wimbledon with the frenzied crowd almost entirely against him. He beat the young Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final here last year after losing the first two sets. He beat Nadal 30 times.
And so, he realized that in order to match up against this intergalactic Nadal, he needed to take his game to a new level. But how? Those seem like just words — how do you actually take your game up to the next level? How do you give more than 100%?
Djokovic’s answer: He redlined. He began to pound the ball full force. He moved in to attack Nadal’s serve. He aimed for the lines. This is for most people nothing more than desperation — when you overhit, you make errors, when you attack Nadal’s serve, you get overrun, when you aim for the lines, you often miss. But Djokovic is so absurdly good at this game that for the rest of the second set, he played at a level that I doubt any other player in tennis history could reach. He broke Nadal three times and won the set 6-4.
But could Djokovic keep his level there? No. He could not. And Nadal took his game upward by running down every Djokovic shot and crashing forehand winners whenever the slightest opening appeared. Nadal won the third set 6-2.
At this point, Nadal and Djokovic had played three hours of absurd, brilliant, exhausting, intense and physical tennis. I don’t know Djokovic’s plan coming in, but I suspect he felt OK about his chances. Surely, the aging and injured Nadal would begin to wilt. Surely, Djokovic — who came into the match fresher — would have the advantage in the late rounds. And, as expected, Djokovic broke Nadal to start the fourth set, and he maintained the lead until he was up 5-3 … and serving for the set, serving to force the winner-take-all fifth set.
And now, finally, we are at the moment.
It is after midnight in Paris. The crowd chants “Rafa! Rafa!” as he goes to get a new racket. Djokovic gets the new tennis balls — it is always an advantage to serve with new balls — and begins stretching uncomfortably. I will admit, this seems strange to me. Yes, Djokovic does sometimes stretch while waiting for his opponent to get into position, but this stretch seems different somehow. He looks tired.
Ah, I think, surely I’m overthinking this. No tennis player is in better shape than Djokovic.
But then Djokovic serves, and it happens. The two rally as they have the whole match, deep penetrating shots, Nadal grunting, Djokovic moving the ball side to side, and then Nadal tries a forehand drop shot. It is a terrible one. The ball is too high, and it goes too deep — it almost lands on the service line. This is the sort of shot Djokovic always pounces on and always puts away and …
… instead, Djokovic doesn’t even go for the ball. He just lets it bounce.
“Wait, Djokovic could have gotten there,” Jim Courier says in disbelief on Tennis Channel, and he certainly could have gotten there. But he did not even try. There are countless reasons why this happened. Maybe he was just moving in the wrong direction and couldn’t turn his momentum fast enough. Maybe he misjudged how poorly the ball was hit. Maybe he was just so surprised by the drop shot that he could not get his body going.
So many maybes.
But it was jolting to see. These are two of tennis’ all-time fighters and they had been going at it full force, and everything was on the line. It made no sense for Djokovic to just give up on a ball.
But he did.
And plainly, Djokovic looked spent from that point on. He battled, because of course he did, and he served well enough in that game to earn a set point, but he lost it when he slapped his usually impeccable backhand into the net. After another great serve, he had a second set point, but he lost it when he followed a poor approach shot and was easily passed by Nadal.
And from that point on, Djokovic was never a threat to win the match.
He framed a forehand. He missed a down-the-line backhand. He left shots short, the unforgivable sin against Nadal’s shattering forehand. He missed wildly. He watched winners go by. He managed to get into the fourth-set tiebreaker, but by then he was done, and Nadal won it, and the match.
“He showed why he’s a great champion,” Djokovic would say. “Staying there. Mentally tough. Finishing the match the way he did.”
What separates Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, perhaps the two greatest tennis players who ever lived? They have played 59 times — Djokovic, as mentioned, has won 30, Nadal 29. They each have all the shots. They each can run down balls that others cannot. They have played epic matches and blowout matches and everything in between. What separates them?
On Tuesday, I can’t help but wonder if it was the end that separates them. Nadal can see the end. He knows the end is soon, perhaps even immediate. Djokovic, meanwhile, is still No. 1 in the world and he still has things he wants to do in tennis, and he’s probably not yet thinking too much about the end.
And maybe it was the end that pushed Nadal to get stronger, more confident, more triumphant in those final games. It’s a funny thing: Nadal has spent an entire career playing every point as if it would be his last. He did that at age 18. He did that at age 25. He did that at age 30.
And now, he’s 36, and he’s dealing with pain he doesn’t want to talk about, and this might be the last time that he and Novak face off on the big stage. So what did he do? Right, exactly, he did what he has always done, what he has spent his lifetime practicing: He played every point as if it was his last.