By Matt Zemek
It is frustrating when a website goes through a disruption and domain reset problem midway through a major tournament. For that reason, I wasn’t able to write immediately after Novak Djokovic’s win over Rafael Nadal on Friday night at Roland Garros. Part of the fun of sportswriting lies in the ability to capture a moment and its meaning when the result of a match or tournament is still fresh, reverberating through the world and being processed in real time on social media and in living rooms across the planet. An attempt to reflect on Rafole LVIII and its 97-minute third set doesn’t feel the same several days later, but it is obviously still something which demands an article.
Tennis With An Accent readers and podcast/live show listeners deserve it. Tennis deserves it.
Novak Djokovic definitely deserves it.
Without referencing the Roland Garros championship Djokovic won two days later against Stefanos Tsitsipas, this is what I feel deserves to be said about Djokovic vs. Nadal at the French Open in 2021:
Nearly every year, the drumbeat emerged whenever Rafael Nadal failed to win one of the clay-court tournaments leading up to Roland Garros: “Is this the year Nadal loses?” The 2015 and 2016 clay-court seasons were exceptional in that Nadal either lacked form or health (if not both) going into those Parisian fortnights.
In every other year since 2006, Nadal has been the presumptive favorite heading into Roland Garros — not always with the exact same level of confidence or certainty, but always with enough reason to think that he would solve problems better than anyone else. The fact that Nadal has won 13 Roland Garros titles makes it foolish to have thought that anyone else deserved to be the favorite — the No. 1 choice — in Paris all these years (with 2015 and 2016 being the exceptions which prove the rule).
No one saw the Robin Soderling upset coming in 2009. It took everyone by surprise. Nadal was expected to lose to Djokovic in 2015. In 2016, he withdrew in the first week. Heading into 2021, the 2009 French Open — marked by the loss to Soderling — was truly the only time in his career that Nadal went to Roland Garros as the player fully expected to win the title and didn’t leave Paris with the trophy.
What is the significance of Djokovic beating Nadal in Paris in 2021? The answer doesn’t need to be complicated. It can be this simple: Nadal came to France as the favorite, and Djokovic toppled him. The hardest thing to do in tennis — Nadal had been 105-2 at Roland Garros heading into Friday’s super semifinal — was accomplished by Djokovic for a second time, but in many ways, this was the first time he beat Nadal at RG in a high-stakes, winner-take-all battle.
Whereas the 2015 quarterfinal was supposed to be a routine win en route to the final — which is exactly what Djokovic turned that match into — the 2021 Roland Garros semifinal was the proverbial meeting on the mountaintop, the winner a heavy favorite in a Sunday final against a much younger and less experienced foe.
Djokovic had played Nadal in high-stakes Roland Garros matches many times before: the 2007 and 2008 semifinals, the 2012 final, the 2013 semifinal (which, like the 2021 semis, was the final before the final), the 2014 final, and the 2020 final this past October.
As was the case with Roger Federer — who got a crack at Nadal in the semis or final of Roland Garros on several occasions (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2019) — Djokovic kept encountering the A-grade version of Rafa and falling short. This is mostly because Rafa is the greatest clay-court player (either gender) we will ever see on this planet, but some of these matches for both Djokovic and Federer were lost because they didn’t handle moments well and didn’t play the very best they could.
Djokovic’s serve let him down in the 2012 final against Nadal. Federer’s break-point conversion rate was abysmal in the 2007 final versus Rafa. Federer blew a first-set lead in the 2011 final against Nadal. Djokovic committed the infamous net violation in the 2013 semifinal which he came very close to winning. Federer was crushed by Nadal in 2008, Djokovic hammered in 2020, but most of the time, these matches for the other members of the Big 3 weren’t steamrollers. They had looks. They had chances. They just couldn’t take enough of them to cross the threshold.
This is the part of Djokovic’s win over Nadal — and the towering achievement it represents — which needs to be absorbed and emphasized: It’s not as though Rafa was playing Zverev or Bautista Agut or Berrettini.
He played Federer several times in Roland Garros semis or finals. He played Djokovic several times. He entered 2021 in Paris with a 26-0 record in the semifinal and championship rounds of this tournament. It was, is, and always will be an extraordinary feat that Rafa was able to pull that off. The fact that he had never lost in those rounds against two of the greatest tennis players who ever lived made it seem to some that it was impossible for anyone to break through.
Yet, an unprecedented feat is not an impossible feat. Never having done something before doesn’t mean the achievement can’t be forged in the future.
Yes, it was going to take something special for Nadal to be defeated at (or close to) the height of his powers in the semifinals or final of Roland Garros. However, the idea that beating Nadal in Paris — as difficult as that task empirically is and has been — was absolutely impossible was hyperbolic.
Sure, it was going to take something special. Guess what? Novak Djokovic is a very special tennis player and champion.
After several Roland Garros semifinals or finals versus Nadal which were competitive but didn’t break the right way, Djokovic just needed another chance to prove himself. He just needed another encounter — this time, later in Nadal’s career, with the Spaniard still as hungry as ever for success but entering the latter half of his 30-something years (he turned 35 during the tournament).
If Djokovic fought long enough and hard enough and well enough — handling moments of difficulty with the poise and brilliance he has demonstrated better than anyone else in the past decade of men’s tennis — he could cross the threshold against Rafa. He could hunt down Nadal and gain a win which, while technically owning a precedent at Roland Garros (2015), would stand on its own as a titanic feat for all eternity.
Nadal was the favorite on Friday, but not by a lot. Novak Djokovic was going to have a say in the outcome.
When Novak Djokovic has a say in the outcome, he almost always comes out on top in a moment of great consequence.
This is what we saw in the second set on Friday night — when Djokovic regrouped from set one — and in the third set, when he saved set point at 5-6, 30-40 with typically steely and mistake-free play from the back of the court. We also saw it in set four, when Nadal sprinted to a 2-0 lead. Djokovic not only reeled him in, but then blew past Rafa to seal the match in 4 hours and 11 minutes.
Djokovic played to Nadal’s backhand more. He used the brilliant tactic of hitting his forehand wide (horizontally) into the doubles alley to make Nadal bend forward to retrieve shots, putting the 13-time RG champion off balance. In this regard, Djokovic turned the tables on Nadal, who had hit his shots horizontally in the 2020 final to pull Nole out of a rhythmic hitting zone. Djokovic was a student of that 2020 loss, learning essential lessons and thereby giving meaning to a defeat. That tactical adjustment versus Nadal on Friday was a microcosm of his career, in that he absorbed defeats from Fedal at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open in the late 2000s but then learned from ALL those moments to become the giant and king of tennis in the 2010s and into the early 2020s.
This match certainly contained tactical masterstrokes which made a big difference for Djokovic, but most of all, Nole did not flinch in that magnificent third set after Rafa broke him back multiple times.
In 2014, Djokovic would not have bounced back from the break of serve he suffered late in the third. In 2021, Novak was ready and able to turn the page, save that set point at 5-6, win another massive third-set breaker against Nadal — reminiscent of the 2018 Wimbledon semifinals — and cross the threshold.
Novak Djokovic, underdog: This status heading into Friday’s match didn’t mean Nole was inferior. It simply meant Nadal on clay in Paris had earned the benefit of the doubt. Easily lost in that context — which gave Rafa the trust he has well and fully earned in the course of his lifetime in tennis — was that Novak Djokovic should never be doubted.
It was never the case that Djokovic couldn’t solve the Nadal puzzle in a Roland Garros semifinal or final, and bust up that perfect 26-0 record for the King of Clay. Djokovic had this ability inside him.
Djokovic simply needed to turn potential into reality. Given that the man can do anything he sets his mind to, there was always the very real possibility he could finally outplay Nadal, even on Court Philippe Chatrier.
Realizing the full scale and range of his possibilities and capacities is, in a very real way, the Novak Djokovic Story summed up in one turn of phrase.
No wonder he now has the chance to compete the classic calendar Grand Slam. It would be yet another example of Djokovic fully realizing and capturing every last ounce of possibility and potential, claiming everything as his own to an extent no one else will ever match.