Rafael Nadal v Novak Djokovic: Best matches in an epic rivalry

Ahead of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic's semi-final clash at the French Open, we look at five of their best clashes
By Deepti Patwardhan

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will add another chapter to their record rivalry when they meet in the semi-finals of the French Open on Friday.

Nadal v Djokovic is the most competed match in men’s tennis. They have met each other a record 57 times before this, with the World No 1 holding a narrow 29-28 lead in their head-to-head.

But it’s the 13-time French Open champion Nadal who holds a clear edge at the claycourt major. Djokovic has won only one of their eight clashes at Roland Garros and trails the Spaniard 7-19 on the red dirt.

The last time they clashed at the French Open, in the 2020 finals, Nadal was a runaway 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 winner. Going into the blockbuster semi-final against Djokovic, the 35-year-old from Mallorca has dropped only one set in his first five matches.

Whether Djokovic can end Nadal’s dominance on clay remains to be seen. But he is one of only two players, including Robin Soderling, to have beaten Nadal at the French Open.

“It’s not like any other match,” Djokovic said of their upcoming clash. “I mean, let’s face it, it’s the biggest challenge you can have, playing on clay against Nadal on this court, on which he has had so much success in his career. In the final stages of a Grand Slam, it doesn’t get bigger than that.”

Here’s a look at five of their best Grand Slam matches:

2012 Australian Open final

Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5

We knew Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic could go on forever, and the 2012 Australian Open only confirmed it. The two great rivals ran each other ragged over five pulsating sets.

But it was Djokovic who emerged a 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5 winner in the longest Grand Slam final (of the tie-break era) that lasted five hours and 53 minutes. It bettered the 1988 US Open final between Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl, which took four hours and 54 minutes.

Djokovic rallied from 2-4 down in the deciding set to claim victory and extend his winning streak over Nadal to seven. It was also the third Grand Slam final in a row that Djokovic had triumphed over Nadal.

The 2012 Australian Open win came on the back of a hugely successful season for Djokovic. The Serb had won three of the four majors in 2011 to break the Nadal-Roger Federer duopoly in men’s tennis.

Novak Djokovic poses with the 2012 Australian Open trophy
Picture by 2012 Getty Images

2013 French Open semi-final

Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7

As their heavyweight battled shifted to clay, Nadal was the frontrunner and the Spaniard was two points away from victory at 6-5 in the fourth set.

But Djokovic, chasing the elusive French Open trophy, broke the Nadal serve and won the subsequent tie-breaker to push the match into the decider. The Serb had earned his stripes on clay by beating Nadal in straight sets at the Monte Carlo Masters final.

In a dramatic fifth set, that lasted 87 minutes, Nadal fought back from 2-4 down to clinch it 9-7 and reach his eighth French Open final.

"When I was serving for the match, against the wind, I knew it was going to be tough because, in difficult moments, he always puts one more ball inside," Nadal said after the match, which lasted four hours and 37 minutes.

"I was ready for the fight and had a little bit of luck at 4-3. In Australia in 2012 it was similar but he won. Everybody knows Novak is a fighter. That's why this is a special sport.”

Rafael Nadal celebrating after winning the 2013 French Open semi-final
Picture by 2013 Getty Images

2018 Wimbledon semi-final

Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(9), 3-6, 10-8

The win over Nadal in the 2018 Wimbledon semi-final brought a fading Djokovic back in the reckoning.

Djokovic had missed the second half of the 2017 season due to an elbow surgery and looked far from his best in the first two majors in 2018. He was beaten by South Korean youngster Hyeon Chung at the Australian Open and crashed to Italian journeyman Marco Cecchinato at the French Open. The Serb even slipped out of top-20 in the world.

At Wimbledon that year, he had survived tricky challenge from Briton Kyle Edmund and Japan’s Kei Nishikori. But with Nadal on the other side of the net at a Grand Slam semi-final, Djokovic slipped back into beast mode.

His fate hanging on his newly-recovered elbow, the Serb engaged in long, intriguing rallies against Nadal, under the Wimbledon roof. With the first semi-final, between John Isner and Kevin Anderson extending beyond six hours, the Nadal-Djokovic clash was halted on Friday with the Serb two sets to one ahead.

Both the players hit 73 winners, and made only 42 unforced errors in the high-quality, high-octane encounter. Djokovic saved five break points in the decider to take it 10-8 after five hours and 15 minutes. The Serb went on to win the Wimbledon title that year, his first major since the 2016 French Open.

2015 Roland Garros quarterfinals

Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal 7-5, 6-3, 6-1

Rather than the sheer drama that has dictated this rivalry, this match makes the list for its historical gravity.

It was the first time since 2009, when Robin Soderling upset Nadal, and so far only, that the Spaniard had lost at French Open.

For possibly the first time in his career, Nadal had seemed confounded by clay that year. He had come into Roland Garros without a clay title and only a wisp of confidence.

When the two met in the quarterfinals, Djokovic was quick to pounce on this rare show of fragility by the Spaniard. Djokovic, hoping to clinch a Career Slam in Paris, raced to a 4-0 lead in the first set. Though Nadal fought back to 4-4, Djokovic claimed the opening set 7-5 in 67 minutes and then ran away with the match.

Nadal’s whipping forehand had earned him only three winners on the day as Djokovic stormed to victory in two hours and 26 minutes. Though it looked like Djokovic would finally add the missing Roland Garros title to his cabinet this year, having passed the toughest test with flying colours, it wasn’t to be.

He was beaten in four sets by Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka in the final.

2014 French Open final

Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4

Nadal ended Djokovic’s four-match winning streak against him with a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 victory in the final of the 2014 French Open.

The win saw the Spaniard become the first player in history to win nine titles at a Grand Slam event and took him level with American great Pete Sampras in the overall major tally (14).

Though Djokovic had held steady to win the opening set, Nadal came out swinging in the second. The stifling heat in Paris, estimated at 27 degree Celsius, seemed to affect the Serb more. Djokovic serving to stay in the set at 5-6, served a double fault and missed a forehand to hand Nadal a set point, which the Spaniard hammered down with a forehand winner.

Djokovic continued to struggle in the sun and faded out in the next two sets. Nadal’s title win saw him retain the No 1 ranking.