In the French Open 2022 quarterfinals on Wednesday, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic faced off for the 59th time in their storied careers. In terms of games played, it didn’t turn out to be the longest match. But because it was an extremely physical battle yet again, it lasted for four hours and 12 minutes.
This wasn’t the finest match the two icons have ever played. Their levels kept fluctuating and they found their best in bursts. But unlike last year, when Nadal went down in an epic semifinal clash, he persisted this time and kept hitting back when Djokovic threatened to do his thing. The Serb was by no means out of form coming into the match. In fact, he had won the Italian Open and not dropped a set in the first four rounds at Roland Garros.
But this time, Nadal simply didn’t allow him to settle. In a gruelling gladiatorial contest, the 13-time French Open champion won mainly because he found the mental edge at crucial times.
A rollercoaster ride
After storming through the first set, Nadal was up 3-0 in the second. He had two breaks of serve, was completely dialled in, and showcased some vintage shot-making. But things took a dramatic turn thereafter. Djokovic pulled one break back immediately, then held serve quickly, before converting his fifth break point in a marathon 18-minute game to draw level. After 54 minutes of play in the second set, we were locked at 3-3.
Djokovic wasn’t done, though, as he won a fourth straight game by holding serve. There were three massive roars from him in that game and the momentum had well and truly shifted. The world No 1 was starting to dictate points from his forehand and there was also a definite dip in Nadal’s intensity. Three games later, we were at one set apiece with the match clock reading two hours and 16 minutes.
At that stage, even as Djokovic had indeed raised his game, it seemed Nadal had hit a roadblock of sorts. The kind that saw him lose from a set up in the semifinal against his great rival the previous year. The temperature had dropped considerably and the conditions were heavy, reducing the bounce Nadal imparts from his top-spin.
More importantly, though, it felt like the Spaniard was suddenly well aware of who he was playing against.
Djokovic wasn’t at his best in the opener but he hadn’t really played badly either. It’s just that he was up against a near-perfect Nadal. But you knew that all the defending champion needed was a small opening. And he got that in the second set, gained confidence, found his range, and started controlling the rallies.
At one set all, it seemed the match was Djokovic’s to lose. Like their RG semifinal in 2021, it seemed he would run away with the contest again.
However, that’s when the big turning point of the match happened. Nadal didn’t crumble. He showed a kind of resistance that Djokovic evidently wasn’t prepared for.
Twist in the tale
But before we talk about that, we need to first go back to the opening set. There were two clear weapons that Nadal utilised to outclass Djokovic in the opener. Firstly, he was ultra aggressive from the get-go. He had spent about two and a half hours more on court than Djokovic through the first four rounds of the tournament. That, combined with his recent struggles with injuries, made winning the first set critical for him.
From the first point on, Nadal’s movement along the baseline was rapid. He had great intensity, went for low-margin shots and put Djokovic on the back foot. There were stunning rallies in the very first game, some trademark defence from Djokovic and after 11 minutes of play, Nadal converted his third break point to take a 1-0 lead. He then went a double break up and closed out the set 6-2 in 49 minutes. It was a stunning set of tennis, but don’t believe anyone who tells you they saw this one-sided scoreline coming.
The second thing that worked in Nadal’s favour in the first set was his strategical brilliance. One of the standout features of Djokovic’s game is his ability to open up the court with his backhand down the line. For Nadal to have the rallies on his racket, he needed his forehand down the line to fire. And he did precisely that. On the other hand, Djokovic kept peppering Nadal’s backhand in order to open up the court. But instead of hitting his backhands hard cross court, Nadal showed patience by looping them back down the line or going for the slice.
It was the aggression, the strategies, and the accuracy that all came together to rattle Djokovic and lead to that one-sided scoreline in the first set.
Now, after he lost the second set and with not many expecting him to bounce back, Nadal somehow found that first set mojo again. He began the third by breaking to love before breaking again to take a 4-1 lead. Like the opener, the third set was pocketed 6-2.
Djokovic, as expected, wasn’t going to be blown away and he responded by racing to a 3-0 lead in the fourth set. He was serving at 5-4 to draw level in the match for the second time. But again, Nadal somehow found the right tempo instead of playing the waiting game for a decider. He stuck to his guns, kept going for his shots, and put Djokovic under enough pressure to get the break back. And by the time the tie-break started, the momentum was firmly in his corner.
“I managed to win the second set and I thought okay, I’m back in the game,” said Djokovic in the post-match press conference.
“But then he had another few fantastic games at the beginning of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level… I had my chances you know, I had my chances in the fourth set. Couple of set points, just one or two shots could’ve taken me into the fifth and then it’s really anybody’s match. But again, he showed why he’s a great champion. Staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did. Congrats to him and his team, no doubt he deserved it.”
There are no secrets remaining for them in each others’ game, as Djokovic mentioned before the match on Wednesday. Tactically, there’s very little they can do to surprise each other. It was all about Nadal’s aggression versus Djokovic’s resistance and what would wilt first. It was an intense psychological battle.
Between them, it often comes down to who has the mental edge and on the night, in a rare occasion for Djokovic, it was a relentless Rafa who turned tough situations around more often than his rival famed for it.