It’s been nearly a year since tennis’s two superpowers – Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – last went to war. That match was the 2014 French Open final, which Rafa won in four tough sets. But the balance of power has shifted since, and significantly. While Nadal limped from injury to injury (first wrist, then appendix) and struggled for basic form, Djokovic swept all before him, winning two of the three Grand Slams and dominating his rivals in the Masters events. Since losing to Rafa in Paris, Novak has beaten no fewer than 22 top-10 opponents. Nadal? Just one: David Ferrer, in Friday’s hard-fought quarter-final.
So at the start of this reunion match, Nadal was in a rather unfamiliar position – of being the clear underdog on a clay court. But out he came swinging his Babolat, breaking Djokovic’s serve in the opening game. Djokovic, however – as Andy Murray and Roger Federer can grimly attest – is fully back to his 2011-grade best. Playing with purposed precision and length, the Serb broke right back a few games later. But he needed his best tennis to save serve again at 3-3, a marathon game in which Nadal held two more break points. Both players stepped it up a level: Rafa’s grunts struck a more urgent note, and Djokovic – hitherto silent – took up the cry. It was the pivotal moment of the first set. Danger finally averted, Djokovic broke an error-plagued Nadal in the following game and duly served it out.
If set one was close, set two was comfortable – for Djokovic. His game having clicked into a groove, he manhandled Nadal in rallies, running him from side to side, scoring with tricksy dropshots. Defensively as dogged as ever, Nadal was largely ineffectual in attack, failing to make his forehand sting. Djokovic was able to head off the threat from Rafa’s inside-out forehand, and the leftie’s forehand down the line – normally a weapon of deadly force – was missing in action completely. Novak is the one opponent that forces Rafa to play differently. His backhand is impenetrably strong, and he takes the ball as it rises, neutralising the Spaniard’s unhallowed top-spin. And playing on top of the baseline allows Djokovic to create some deadly angles.
But there’s one trophy that counts in the clay season, and all the others are makeweights. In both of the last two seasons, Djokovic has beaten Nadal in the run-up to the French Open, only to lose to him where it mattered most. If the match was played tomorrow, Novak would be the favourite. But there’s a good deal of tennis to be played before June 7th, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Nadal at Roland Garros, it’s that he’s not going down easily. The fight will be long and furious. If Djokovic wants that trophy, he may have to prise it out of Rafa’s cold, head hands.