The Greatest Set of Tennis Ever

The word “ever” has been attached to the three of them for a long time now. Roger Federer was first to it, the first to be called the greatest ever. From Wimbledon 2004 to the Australian Open 2010, 19 grand slam tournaments in all, Fed reached the final in all but one. He won 12 of them. He was the all-time record holder for grand slam titles before he turned 29. There hadn’t been anything like that in modern tennis times.

Beyond numbers, though, there were the aesthetics. He was an artist at the net, a slugger with the forehand, a dancer at the baseline. He didn’t hit serves so much as he carved them, sculpted them, painted them, chiseled them.

The great ones — the Lavers, the Navratilovas, the McEnroes, the Everts, the Samprases — simply loved watching him play.

Rafael Nadal was next, and he proved a perfect foil for the perfect player. His game was all sweat and muscles and effort and topspin. If there was the slightest crack in Federer’s game it was in his one-handed backhand and Nadal pounded it relentlessly, sending buzzing topspin shots at it until Federer wilted. On clay, Federer didn’t stand a chance. No one did against Rafa. But even on grass and hardcourts — Fed’s home offices — Nadal began to make inroads, winning the classic 2008 Wimbledon final, winning the 2009 classic Australian Open final, setting up a stirring Ali-Frazier, Martina-Chrissie, Magic-Bird, Manning-Brady kind of rivalry.

Most of this happened before Novak Djokovic was fully operational. When he came on the scene in 2007 as a 20-year-old, he was an enigma. He didn’t look especially serious about anything. He was not in great shape, he retired from some matches, he often seemed unwilling to engage. But he was a tennis prodigy from the start, a counterpuncher who turned his opponent’s power inside out. He reached the U.S. Open Final that year (losing in three close sets to Federer), and he won the 2008 Australian Open. Still, he was little more than a bit character in the big tennis movie. Nobody saw 2011 coming.

In 2011, Djokovic blazed by Federer and Nadal. He has talked about it many times — Djoker became more serious about everything, he completely changed what he ate and how he worked out, he became the fittest player out there. Yes, there were times when the world did not seem ready for a third wheel getting in the middle of Federer-Nadal (and if there had to be a third wheel, the world seemed to prefer Andy Murray), but Djokovic belligerently kept throwing himself in there anyway, beating Nadal repeatedly, beating Federer on grass, becoming No. 1 in the world and staying there.

Because those three players so thoroughly dominated tennis — with one of them winning every single grand slam tournament between 2017 and last year’s weird U.S. Open — everything about them seems outsized. Ever. All-time. Tennis history. Each tournament brings another startling new achievement. Federer was the first man to 20 grand slam singles titles. Nadal became the second. Djokovic, always playing catch-up, got to 18, but did break the record for most weeks at No. 1.

And the best matches between them might be the best matches period — Nadal-Federer, 2008 Wimbledon … Federer-Djokovic, 2011 French Open … Djokovic-Nadal, 2012 Australian Open … Nadal-Djokovic, 2013 French Open … Djokovic-Nadal, 2018 Wimbledon … Djokovic-Federer, 2019 Wimbledon. You could write entire books about each and every one of them.

Friday, Nadal and Djokovic went at it again, 58th time, this one in Paris. No setup is required. Nadal has won 13 French Open titles. No one is close. On the Roland Garros clay, he had played Djokovic and Federer a total of 14 times, and he lost just once, to Djoker in 2015. And, it should be said, that one was somewhat tainted — Nadal was coming off an injury that had wrecked his body and he was not in form.

This time around, Nadal was in form — before dropping a set in the quarterfinal to the plucky Diego Schwartzman, he had won 34 French Open sets in a row, just shy of his own record. He responded to Schwartzman’s insolence by winning nine games in a row to put the match away.

Djokovic, meanwhile, seemed to bring a lot of emotional baggage with him into the match. It had only been a few months since he had faced Nadal in an odd October French Open final, and he had been obliterated 6-0, 6-2, 7-5. In all, he had not beaten Nadal on clay since 2016, when both men were still in their 20s. When Nadal took a 5-0 lead to start off the match, the inevitable seemed inevitable.

But Djokovic did something then that, I think, changed the complexion of the entire match. Rather than toss the set away to conserve energy for the fight ahead, Djokovic dug in. He held serve and then in, an epic game, broke Nadal. He held serve again, forcing Nadal to try again and serve out the first set. Nadal did serve it out in a tense game, but the entire story had flipped. Yes, the score was still 6-3, yes Nadal was still up a set (and, yes, Nadal basically NEVER loses a match when he wins the first set) but Djokovic had sent the clearest of messages: He would be here all day and all night.

The second set was joyous, back and forth, Djokovic getting the break, Nadal breaking back, Djokovic breaking again, epic points, drop shots on drop shots, overhead smashes returned with fire, one corner to the other, one end to the other, it was jaw-dropping stuff. Earlier in the day, two of the best young players in the world — Stephanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev — had played an entertaining five-set semifinal of their own, but that was simply a different brand of tennis, big serves, heavy winners, lots of errors, occasional brilliance, occasional breakdowns, it’s the sort of tennis the greatest mortals play.

But Djokovic and Nadal, they do not play like mortals. At their best, it does not seem possible to get a ball by them. At their best, they turn a losing position into a winner with one strike. At their best, they are tennis dementors, stealing all hope from their opponents. And what happens when a dementor plays a dementor? Djokovic was left standing, winning the second set 6-3.

And all of that was just a setup for the greatest set of tennis I’ve ever seen, the third set between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the semifinal of the 2021 French Open.

I don’t even know how you describe it — boxing probably offers the best analogy. There are moments in the greatest boxing matches ever fought when one fighter seems to be the conqueror and the other seems to be finished. Then, in an instant, the script flips, and the roles reverse, and the fighter who had been out lands ferocious punches and the fighter who had been conquering is wobbling and in trouble. And then, impossibly, the script flips again. And again. I think of the first round of Hagler-Hearns. I think of the 10th round of Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe. I think, of course, of the Thrilla in Manilla.

This was Djokovic-Nadal in that third set. It wasn’t just that match went back and forth, one break, another break, another break, another. It was that one player would hit a shot that simply defied belief — a Nadal crosscourt backhand on a ball that was already behind him, a Djokovic lob on a ball just inches off the ground, a Nadal forehand that seems to start two feet wide and then curved into the court, a Djokovic return of serve hotter than the serve itself — but it was how unfazed the other guy was by it. For much of the set, Djokovic did not make a single unforced error, but he still could not separate himself. For much of the set, Nadal would hit two, three, even four shots in a point that would be a winner against just about anybody else in the world but against Djokovic the ball would come back just the same.

It was simply heaven. If forced to pick one point to describe this set — and no one point ever could — it was when Djokovic led 3-2 but Nadal had a break point to even the set. Djokovic served and the two tested each other’s nerves with some high, loopy shots, the sort that nervous players will sometimes spray wide or long. But, again, that’s the stuff for mortals, neither of them was going to miss in this moment.

So Nadal cracked a crosscourt backhand that forced Djokovic all the way to the deuce corner. Djokovic responded by pounding a heavy forehand down the line, exactly what Nadal was hoping. He ranged over and unleashed a forehand into the other corner. Djokovic chased it down and hit crosscourt, again exactly what Nadal wanted. The setup was complete. Nadal unleashed the down-the-line forehand that for more than 15 years has put away every player on the planet, Djokovic included.

Only this time, Djokovic chased it down and desperately hit a squash shot — a slice forehand — that landed deep in the court. The point had been reset. Nadal’s backhand was a little bit short and now it was Djokovic’s turn, he unleashed his forehand at a short angle crosscourt. It too might have been the winning shot against someone else, but Nadal stretched and managed to slice a backhand back. Djokovic pounded and hit what was surely a winner, a crosscourt backhand deep into the corner. Nadal chased this one down too.

And only then was Djokovic able to hit the ball back into that same corner, wrong-footing Nadal, winning the point after 23 absurd shots.

That was this whole set. There was nothing to separate the players. Djokovic’s particular genius is his ability to become whatever kind of player the situation demands, so in this set, he turned up the topspin on his forehand and would not miss. Nadal’s particular genius is his fighting spirit and feel for hitting exactly the right shot at the right time, so in this set, he kept finding answers when he seemed down and out.

And then, I realize, I mischaracterize these two slightly when I say they are non-mortal or dementors — their humanity was certainly on display. They are not robots. Djokovic served for the set but missed a wide-open, middle-of-the-court forehand, the sort of shot he never misses. In the tiebreak, at the end of an extraordinary scramble point, Nadal missed a forehand volley, the sort of shot he never misses.

But mostly, this set was just played at such a high level that it was hard to comprehend — as if all the tennis played before, all the Lavers and Kings and Rosewalls and Everts and Borgs and Navratilovas and Ashes and Connors and McEnroes and Grafs and Lendls and Seleses and Agassis and Venuses and Samprases and Serenas and even Federers — was prologue. Djokovic served for the set but Nadal came up with ungodly winners to thwart him. Nadal had a set point and Djokovic unleashed a mind-boggling drop shot to stay alive.

In the end, Nadal’s missed volley in the tiebreak was decisive. Djokovic finished off the set with an ace and a steady rally and that put him up two sets to one. And Nadal was spent. Physically. Emotionally. I’d say physically mostly — he seemed to have some trouble with his ankle. The man is 35 years old and the two had played grueling tennis for four hours. Djokovic took the final set and will play Tsitsipas in the final.

There’s a lot to say about where this puts Djokovic on that imaginary greatest of all time list — he now has a chance to become the first player of the Open Era to win each grand slam twice, he would move to within one grand slam of Nadal and Djokovic with a seemingly brighter future ahead, he can now say that he has beaten all the greatest players of his era on the biggest stages and on their favorite surfaces.*

*Yes, he had beaten Nadal at the French Open before, but as mentioned, there were extenuating circumstances.

But we can save our Djokovic case for another day. This is a day to savor one golden set played by two of the best to ever take the court. Chris Evert, when asked what the movie title would be, tweeted this.

She tweeted that after the set. Because of how the match ended, I don’t know that the match itself qualifies for that … I think it would be one of the other great matches featuring Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. We have been so lucky to watch these three play tennis. We’ll never see anything like it again.