Rafael Nadal Downs Novak Djokovic in Surprising Chapter of a Storied Rivalry

All conditions seemed to favor the Serb, but Nadal pulled out the win to advance to the French Open semifinals.

Chris Almeida: So we’ve just been through what, for a long time, felt like a replay of last year’s French Open match between Djokovic and Nadal. That one was also a four setter, also incredibly long, lasting over four hours, also had a lot of long, drag-out knock-down rallies.

lot of very long games. But this time, it seems like Nadal had all the answers. Last year, he was physically fading at the end of the match and this time, despite a bad injury to his foot, he looked great and pulled out a four-set win: 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4).

Jon Wertheim: This is part of the beauty of the rivalry. It can all be Magic 8 Ball signs. We’re looking to favor Djokovic, he hasn’t lost in 22 straight sets. It was thought he would have a much easier time here.

He didn’t have the foot injuries, he was rounding into form, he got a night match. And then we got exactly the opposite of what most people predicted which is: Nadal got off to the fast start.

Now, in 51 of the 59 matches the player who won the first set won the match. Djokovic looked to be the one who was a little confused and a little uncomfortable. And he honestly was lucky to win the set that he did win. Nadal had a double break to start that second set.

And in some ways, it was a mystifying performance for the defending champion. Given that everything was breaking Djokovic’s way [heading into the match]—Nadal had a long fourth-round match, and is a year older, and was playing in Djokovic’s favored conditions, and Djokovic got him the last time they played here—I was surprised that he didn’t have a bit more energy and a few more answers.

And some of this is a testament to their rivalry. I do think the crowd may have gotten in Djokovic’s head a little bit. It wasn’t quite Federer-at-Wimbledon level, but they were heavily in Nadal’s corner. And they stayed until the end. And nobody will be surprised that Rafael Nadal wins a match at the French Open, but I think in a weird way, this was a little bit of an upset.

CA: Certainly. When anybody asked me who I thought was going to win this tournament, I said … it was Djokovic. Right? He was in great form coming in and he was healthy. And so I think that the big difference right between the two situations that you mentioned— playing Federer on Centre Court and playing Nadal here on Chatrier— is that I think that Nadal does not get tight in moments like this.

You know very much see Federer feeling the weight of the match points even as he serves for them. And here, you know Nadal is going to fight back even if he is in conditions that are against him and here, nothing was against him. The crowd is backing him up. And with a guy like Nadal across the net from you, it’s probably harder for Djokovic to go into the zone and do whatever it is that he does … imagining the fans are actually chanting his name or that whole thing.