Playing Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros is unlike any challenge in sports. The Spaniard is as comfortable on Court Philippe-Chatrier as Michael Phelps is swimming in a pool. So dominant is the legendary lefty on the Parisian terre battue that winning a set against him has been a major accomplishment.
When Nadal lost a set against Top 10 stalwart Diego Schwartzman in the quarter-finals, that snapped the 13-time champion’s 36-set winning streak at Roland Garros. On most occasions, Nadal doesn’t just win at the clay-court major; he dominates opponents. Any time a foe dares take a set, he overwhelms them with a tsunami-like wave of unrelenting offence and seemingly impenetrable defence to completely shift the momentum and drown a player’s hopes.
That has helped Nadal win 23 6-0 sets in Paris. That is why he is a jaw-dropping 105-2 at this tournament. But on Friday, one of the two men who has defeated the 35-year-old, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, will step up to face the ultimate challenge in sports once again.
“I’m confident,” Djokovic said. “I believe I can win, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
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As they are at every tournament at this stage of their careers, Djokovic and Nadal are chasing history this fortnight. Nadal can move ahead of Roger Federer on the all-time Grand Slam titles list by earning his 21st major crown. Djokovic can claw closer to Federer and Nadal with his 19th and become the first man in the Open Era to win all four majors twice. The winner of this semi-final will be the favourite in the championship match against Stefanos Tsitsipas or Alexander Zverev.
This is a familiar hurdle for Djokovic, who likely would have lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires several times if not for the Spaniard. With a victory on Friday, the top seed will reach his sixth Roland Garros final, which would tie him for second all-time with Bjorn Borg.
But the 18-time Grand Slam champion knows how tough it will be to defeat Nadal. This will be their record 58th ATP Head2Head meeting, and their ninth clash at the clay-court major. Djokovic leads their epic rivalry 29-28, but trails at this event 1-7.
Most ATP Head2Head Meetings (Open Era)
|Players||# of Matches||Record|
|Djokovic vs. Nadal||58*||Djokovic leads 29-28|
|Djokovic vs. Federer||50||Djokovic leads 27-23|
|Federer vs. Nadal||40||Nadal leads 24-16|
|Connors vs. Lendl||36||Connors leads 23-13|
|Djokovic vs. Murray||36||Djokovic leads 25-11|
|Lendl vs. McEnroe||36||Lendl leads 21-15|
The 34-year-old is an impressive 79-15 at Roland Garros, but nearly half of his losses have come against Nadal. The lefty has undoubtedly been his Paris nemesis. However, Nadal has also pushed Djokovic to greater heights. The Serbian enjoys rising to the occasion against Rafa, and he cherishes the opportunity to put his skills and resolve to the test.
“It’s not like any other match. Let’s face it, it’s the biggest challenge that you can have, playing on clay against Nadal on this court in which he has had so much success in his career,” Djokovic said. “In the final stages of a Grand Slam, it doesn’t get bigger than that.”
Playing each other almost makes things simpler. Both men know that if they do not bring their absolute best, they will likely lose.
“You need to play your best tennis. It’s a match that you know what you have to do if you really want to have chances to succeed and to keep going on the tournament,” Nadal said. “[It is] always a big challenge. That’s something that is good because in some way we are practising, we are living the sport for these moments.”
Most Roland Garros Finals
The last two times Djokovic and Nadal have clashed in a Grand Slam semi-final, they produced unforgettable matches. At Wimbledon in 2018, Djokovic, who was still fighting to find his top form following struggles with his right elbow, defeated Nadal 10-8 in the fifth set.
The major semi-final they contested before that, at Roland Garros in 2013, remains one of the most crushing losses of Djokovic’s career. Nadal had still only tasted defeat once in Paris, and that came against Robin Soderling in 2009. Djokovic was World No. 1 and the Spaniard World No. 4. It seemed the Serbian would finally find a way to beat Rafa in his domain. But with the top seed serving at 4-3, 40/40 in a tension-filled fifth set, he inexplicably ran into the net while moving forward to put away an easy forehand volley. The Spaniard eventually won 9-7 in the decider.
Heading into this battle, Nadal provided an important reminder. As big as this feels, the winner will not lift the trophy. “It’s a semi-final. It’s not a final,” he said. “That’s a big difference. Even the winner of that match needs to keep going and [there] remains a lot of work to do to try to achieve the final goal here.”
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Djokovic learned that the hard way here in 2015. The Serbian beat Nadal in straight sets in the quarter-finals, and he was closing in on the Coupe des Mousquetaires, which had been his white whale. But instead, Stan Wawrinka left Paris with the title. It took Djokovic until 2016 to finally break through on Court Philippe-Chatrier.
You could talk about Djokovic and Nadal’s rivalry for days. However, the players don’t have the luxury of reflecting on it now. They have one thing in mind, and that is getting the win on Friday.
“Of course, the numbers are just amazing,” Nadal said. “But I can’t think about that now, honestly. Let’s talk about that when I finish my career.”
Two titans will clash, adding another chapter to one of the most storied rivalries in all of sports. But only one will move on. The other, inevitably, will be disappointed.
“We know each other well. Everybody knows that in these kind of matches anything can happen,” Nadal said. “The player who is playing better that day is the player that going to have better chances. That’s it. Probably if that happens, [it is] going to be an important match for both of us.”