In the 52nd encounter of men’s tennis longest rivalry, and unquestionably one of the sport’s greatest, world #1 Rafael Nadal takes on three-time champion Novak Djokovic for a place in the Wimbledon final. Nadal arrived in SW19 fresh from winning an 11th French Open title and has played some magnificent tennis so far at the Championships. Djokovic, meanwhile, looks hungry to return to the top of the mountain, from where he once reigned almost unchallenged. Who will come out on top?
No two players have met more frequently than Nadal and Djokovic. Djokovic leads their head-to-head narrowly, with 26 victories to Nadal’s 25. That includes a win in their last Wimbledon match when he denied the Spaniard 6-4 6-1 1-6 6-3 in the final in 2011. Nadal won their only other meeting at the All England Club in 2007 in the last four when Djokovic was forced to retire in the third set. He has also won their last two matches, on the clay in Madrid last year and Rome this.
Path to the quarterfinals
Nadal began his campaign for a third Wimbledon crown with a solid 6-3 6-3 6-2 victory over Dudi Sela. He backed that up by defeating Mikhail Kukushkin 6-4 6-3 6-4 and Australian teenager Alex De Minaur 6-1 6-2 6-4, before overcoming Jiri Vesely to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2011. There he edged Juan Martin del Potro 7-5 6-7 4-6 6-4 6-4 in a five-set epic that will live long in the memory and would have been worthy of deciding the Championships, let alone a quarterfinal.
Djokovic opened his Championships with a convincing 6-3 6-1 6-2 win against Tennys Sandgren, who was a quarterfinalist at Melbourne Park earlier this season. Argentina’s Horacio Zeballos fared no better, losing 1-6 2-6 3-6. Djokovic then ended British hopes by downing Kyle Edmund 4-6 6-3 6-2 6-3 despite clashing with the crowd. He then comfortably beat Karen Khachanov 6-4 6-2 6-2 in fading light in the fourth round, before picking up a 13th straight win against Kei Nishikori 6-3 3-6 6-2 6-2.
How do they match up?
As baseliners, the only equals Nadal and Djokovic have are each other. Both men are excellent defenders, with Djokovic’s elasticity matched by Nadal’s relentless pursuit of every ball, and their ability to use the ball at the end of their range is unparalleled. Nadal has the bigger weapons of the two, with his forehand more dangerous than any single shot that Djokovic can throw at him. But the Serbian’s backhand has been able to master Nadal’s topspin consistently.
That denies Nadal his preferred pattern of breaking down an opponent’s backhand with cross-court forehands. But the Spaniard has found joy by extending Djokovic with his forehand down the line and then hitting into the open space, which Djokovic will have to be wary of with Nadal hitting that shot well. The main concern for Nadal will be Djokovic’s return of serve. The 12th seed has been breaking serve at will, and has won nearly half the returning games he has played.
Nadal may have won their clash on clay in Rome, but the grass of Wimbledon is more Djokovic’s territory. The former world #1 has looked perilously close to his ruthless, Slam-winning best and should be ready for Nadal. Nadal has been playing excellent tennis himself, but how much he will have left after his epic win over del Potro is questionable. That fatigue and court conditions that will suit Djokovic slightly better should tip it the Serb’s way. It will be close, but expect Djokovic to win in five.