The 52nd meeting between 17-time Grand Slam champion and current world #1, Rafael Nadal, and 12-time Grand Slam champion and former world #1, Novak Djokovic, will be for a place in the 2018 Wimbledon final. Their rivalry has been nothing short of epic, and for much of the past decade defined the sport and decided who would take home many of the biggest titles, including seven Grand Slams. But which three of their Major matches were best?
3. Wimbledon final 2011 – Djokovic def. Nadal 6-4 6-1 1-6 6-3
When Djokovic and Nadal first met in a Grand Slam final, it was at Wimbledon in 2011. Djokovic had begun the year with a 43-match long winning streak that stretched from January to June. That had included a second Australian Open title, which was also his second Slam, and a spate of victories over Nadal. Indeed, though Djokovic had fallen in the French Open semifinals and Nadal had won the title, by reaching the Wimbledon final Djokovic had dethroned Nadal as the world #1.
But Djokovic was still struggling to reach the level Nadal was already at, to be considered amongst the all time greats and the hall of famers. The display of clinical hitting he put on to defeat Nadal in four sets went some way to getting him there. The opening games were close, but up 5-4 in the first set Djokovic made his move, breaking Nadal to take it. In the second he was unplayable, running away with it 6-1 to leave Nadal with a mountain to climb if he wanted to defend his title.
But rare indeed is the challenge Nadal does not embrace and he hit back in the third and he hit back hard. Djokovic’s defences were overrun as Nadal won it 6-1 to breathe life back into the match. Ultimately though, it was to be Djokovic’s day as he broke Nadal midway through the fourth to seal the win and claim the title he had dreamed of winning as a child. Whilst as a match they have played better, it elevated their rivalry to a new level that promised much. It would soon deliver.
2. French Open semifinals 2013 – Nadal def. Djokovic 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7 9-7
Nadal in all his pomp was untouchable on a clay court until Djokovic fought his way into Nadal’s kingdom in 2011, beating the Spaniard in Madrid and Rome. Nadal re-established himself swiftly, hammering Djokovic in Monte Carlo in 2012 and denying him the chance to hold all four Slams at once later that year in Paris. But a year later in Monte Carlo, Djokovic dethroned the great Spaniard and seemed poised to threaten him even in his fiefdom of Roland Garros.
The quirks of the draw, where Nadal was seeded fifth, his ranking having slipped after a 2012 hit by injury, saw them meet in the semifinals not the title match. But there seemed little doubt that it was this match that was the effective decider. It began well, and the quality only improved from there. The first set went the way of Nadal, the second to Djokovic. Nadal then raced away with the third as the Serbian’s challenge seemed to falter under the hot French sun.
Nadal went up a break in the fourth and looked to be within touching distance of victory, only for Djokovic to fight back and eventually prevail in a tiebreak. It was then Djokovic who struck first in the decider, which was just the second Nadal had ever played at Roland Garros, and still is. But up a break, Djokovic slipped into the net at the vital moment, costing him a point and the momentum. Nadal broke back and then broke again to shatter Djokovic’s dreams of Roland Garros victory.
But what a match! It certainly has not been equalled by any clay court clash this decade nor most likely in the preceding decade either. The quality of the ball-striking was phenomenal as two excellent baseliners tore chunks out of each other for hours until at last, as Nadal always is in Paris, he was the last man standing. But it proved that if any man could hold a candle to the great Spaniard it was Djokovic, and he finally beat Nadal in Paris in 2015, winning the title in 2016 to complete the set.
1. 2012 Australian Open final – Djokovic def. Nadal 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7 7-5
Few matches have ever deserved the title epic as much as the clash between Djokovic and Nadal to decide the Australian Open final in 2012. By the end of it both men were literally out on their feet. Djokovic came into it looking to cement his status as a great of the game and prove that his astonishing 2011 season was no fluke. Nadal, though, was smarting for revenge after six straight defeats, including in back-to-back Major finals at Wimbledon and in New York.
Nadal made the better start, getting the first break midway through the opening set. The Serbian hit back, but Nadal broke Djokovic for a second time to seal the set. But Djokovic then took charge, piercing Nadal’s defence with accurate and penetrating hitting. He levelled the match and then won the third set comfortably to leave Nadal on the ropes. He pushed for the knockout blow throughout the fourth, but couldn’t find it. Nadal stayed alive and found a way to level proceedings in a tiebreak.
It was Djokovic who blinked first in the decider, handing Nadal a break with an errant shot in the sixth game. But the Spaniard could not hold onto it in the face of Djokovic pressure and slammed a backhand into the net in the very next game to give Djokovic back the momentum. Djokovic, who was beginning to flag after a nigh-on five hour semifinal with Murray, searched desperately for a break and found one at 5-5. After saving one more break point, he served it out to defend his title.
The match clocked in at a mammoth 5:53 hours, the longest ever match at the Australian Open and the longest ever Grand Slam final. Both men had to be fetched chairs during the trophy presentation they were so exhausted. But throughout the quality of the baseline exchanges had remained exceptionally high, a tribute to the fitness and ability of both champion and runner-up. It was truly one of the greatest matches of all-time and the greatest of their rivalry.
Which of Nadal and Djokovic's Grand Slam matches do you think was best? Let us know in the comments below!