Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have met almost an equal number of times (17). I find their match-ups to be as entertaining, if not more entertaining, than those between Roger and Rafa.
(I have gotten into screaming matches with fans over this, in which fans will say "How can you SAY that Roger and Rafa's matches are NOT the MOST entertaining of all time!")
I can pretty much predict Rafa's game-plan when he faces Roger, but I can't say the same for Nole. Just as Roger and Andy Roddick played a different sort of Wimbledon final in 2009, Rafa and Novak's match-ups have a different flavor from those of Rafa and Roger.
In this article, I would like to discuss all of the Nole and Rafa match-ups, but I don't have time, and the slide-show format is better suited to it, so that discussion will have to wait.
What I would like to do with this article is have a vote...a vote on the top five match-ups.
Then I am going to lay out my case for why we should be talking about, and looking at, the Novak/Nadal (N&N) rivalry just as much as we talk about Roger and Rafa (R&R).
I looked around and could find neither quantitative, nor qualitative discussion of this rivalry on the web, and I think that is a deficiency. It may be because the stark, dry, numbers are so lob-sided towards Rafa. The numbers don't tell the real tale about how good this rivalry is, and the high quality of these matches.
My top five are listed below (in order). You may argue with me. You may point out that I only selected those matches where Rafa won, and what about some when Novak won? I would counter by saying, yes, but those weren't really outstanding matches–the kind that one would compare with a R&R match.
And then we would enter into an argument about how one measures "outstanding". (I have some ideas on that, but that is a different topic.)
By all means, please give me your opinion.
1. 2008 Hamburg (clay) The Battle for #2 [7–5, 2–6, 6–2] (3 hours)
After 150-odd weeks at No. 2, Rafa was finally facing a legitimate challenge for the spot from Novak, with the winner being the undisputed No. 2 in the world.
Novak broke Rafa early in the first set, but Rafa clawed back. The second set was pivotal, as Rafa, down 0-40, clawed his way back to deuce several times, but then lost the game as Novak held serve and more. Rafa then broke early in the third set, and Novak could not get back in.
This match was characterized by lots of forward-and-back (rather than side-to-side). Novak would draw Rafa to net, lob him, Rafa would race back and retrieve the lob, and drive it back with a reverse lob or down the line shot.
Novak would win a set for the first time against Rafa on clay (joining Roger, G. Coria, and SOD as the only people who've ever taken a set from Rafa on clay).
2. 2009 Madrid (clay) [6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9)] (4 hours)
A heartbreaking match for Novak, as he outplayed Rafa throughout, and held three match points. But he could not break Rafa at the critical times, and squandered his break chances.
In many respects, both players suffered for the effort expended in this match. Novak would have a hard time coming back emotionally through Wimbledon, and Rafa would have nothing left for his final the next day with Roger.
He was forced to withdraw from Wimbledon after losing his first-ever match at Roland Garros, with tendinitis in both knees.
The 'quality' of tennis was not as high as the Hamburg semi-final in my opinion, though it was a very tense and riveting final.
3. 2009 Rome (clay) [7–6(2), 6–2]
Both the Monte Carlo and the Rome finals were examples of exquisite tennis. In Monte Carlo, Novak came back in the second set, playing on-fire tennis, and breaking Rafa twice. But he could not sustain it, and faded in the third set.
In Rome, he came closer. They both played an outstanding first set, but Novak faded after losing a heart-breaking tie-break. Both matches are in my personal hall-of-fame match collection as examples of how tennis should be played. Several of the rallies exceeded 30 strokes.
Novak would get closer still in the next tournament (Madrid) in this grueling five-week period.
4. 2008 Queen's Club (grass) Battle for #2 [7–6(6), 7–5]
Another fine example of the kind of exquisite tennis that these two competitors play. Many points came in the forward-and-backward variety (rather than side to side) again. No breaks of serve occurred.
This was also a battle for #2, and even though he had lost the earlier round, for some reason, Novak just would not go away.
5. 2008 Olympics (hardcourt) The Battle for Gold [6–4, 1–6, 6–4]
Both players wanted a spot in the gold-medal round (this was the semis). Both players (palpably) wanted to win a first-ever gold for their country. Both players battered each other with brutal ground-strokes through the best-of-three match.
Rafa broke Novak in the first set, but then Novak caught fire in the second set, playing like a man who wanted that gold medal. In the final game, on match point, Novak netted a pretty easy overhead smash, with Nadal well behind the baseline on the other side.
For me, this match is memorable for its brutal, I-really-mean-this ground-strokes...strokes that easily took both players beyond the doubles alley.
This rivalry is in marvelous contrast to the R&R rivalry, yet has similarities that shed light on the R&R. In particular, much has been made that the R&R rivalry is "skewed" toward Rafa because of the number of times that they have played on clay.
I"m not sure I agree with that assessment. The clay court season represents about 33 percent of the year. The fact that these great players meet more often on clay then on hardcourts says a lot about their ability on clay...and also shows that hardcourts take such a toll that no one player, not even Roger, plays all of them...nor reaches the finals.
What makes a match great? There are many qualities, but one that stands out: close-to- the-brink tennis. This would be a match in which players win a significant number of points on the opponent’s serve, making it seem that anything could happen at any time.
That's why these matches stand out to me.
Please vote! And please give me feedback...we can continue to track this rivalry, and have this discussion again.
Here's a list of their matches (Nadal/Novak) [the order for their h2h is alphabetical]:
- 2006 French Open [h2h: 1:0] (Novak logged the first entry in his 'retirement Slam' against Rafa in the QF)
- 2007 Indian Wells [h2h: 2:0]
- 2007 Miami [h2h: 2:1]
- 2007 Rome [h2h: 3:1]
- 2007 FO [h2h: 4:1]
- 2007 Wimbledon [h2h: 5:1] (Novak logged the second entry in his 'retirement Slam' against Rafa in the SF)
- 2007 Roger's Cup [h2h: 5:2] (Novak beats Rafa, Roger, to win the title)
- 2008 Indian Wells [h2h: 5:3]
- 2008 Hamburg [h2h: 6:3] (This will be one of our entries in the vote)
- 2008 FO [h2h: 7:3]
- 2008 Queen's Club [h2h: 8:3] (This will be one of our entries in the vote)
- 2008 Cincinnati [h2h: 8:4]
- 2008 Olympics [h2h: 9:4] (This will be one of our entries in the vote)
- 2009 Davis Cup [h2h: 10:4]
- 2009 Monte Carlo [h2h: 11:4] (This will be one of our entries in the vote)
- 2009 Rome [h2h: 12:4] (This will be one of our entries in the vote)
- 2009 Madrid [h2h: 13:4] (This will be one of our entries in the vote)
h2h: 9-0 (Rafa/Roger h2h: 9-2)
h2h: 2-0 (Rafa/Roger h2h: 1-2)
h2h: 2-4 (Rafa/Roger h2h: 3-3)