Will the 2016 French Open Renew the Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic Rivalry?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistApril 27, 2016

Spain's Rafael Nadal (R) shakes hands with Serbia's Novak Djokovic at the end of their men's quarter final match of the Roland Garros 2015 French Tennis Open in Paris on June 3, 2015. AFP PHOTO / PASCAL GUYOT        (Photo credit should read PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)

As the 2016 French Open looms closer, Rafael Nadal may have opened the door to his rivalry with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. The great Spaniard has come back from the obscure depths of his No. 5 ranking with a huge turnaround in just a couple of weeks with redemptive titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.

While Djokovic has been sitting on the sidelines, Nadal’s ascension has fueled speculation about a 10th French Open title. Is he more of a threat than irritant to Djokovic’s obsession to finally nail down his first title at Roland Garros?

“[The] King of clay is Rafa,” Roger Federer said in Rafa Roundup, courtesy of RafaelNadalFans.com. “He is the tennis player to beat. Novak’s never won in Paris. Maybe now he’s the favorite, but Nadal is Nadal. I am happy of what he showed to those who did not believe that he could win in Monte Carlo.”

Other contenders come and go, but this is Nadal, perhaps history’s greatest fighter, the southpaw antagonist who has made a career of mini-comebacks while shaking his fist at the tennis gods and their curses of injuries and aging. Is it really that surprising that the muscular clay king has returned with dervish topspin and another call at a rivalry with King Novak—the one player who has tormented him for over four years of ups and downs?

The Golden Age of modern tennis legends may not be finished with the anticlimax of Djokovic’s unfettered domination. Matches come and go, but the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry could very well pull back the curtain for one more epic clash on the red clay at Roland Garros. Despite their rivalry, Djokovic praised Nadal for his clay-court accomplishments, per We Are Tennis:

We Are Tennis @WeAreTennis

Novak Djokovic: "Rafael Nadal is the best player on clay in tennis history. I insist" https://t.co/A6sHETYHoN


One More Rivalry Chapter

In last year’s French Open quarterfinals, Djokovic obliterated Nadal’s five-year lock of winning the Musketeer Cup. It seemed to signal the end of their rivalry, barring a Nadal return to prominence. It’s the longest and most prolific rivalry in the modern era in terms of majors and Masters 1000 clashes and all that has been at stake through their 48 matches. And it’s been a hard-fought and streaky rivalry with unmatched energy and fierceness. 

  1. Nadal dominated the early rivalry phase, winning 14 of 18 in their head-to-head matches. There were eight matches apiece on clay and hard courts and two matches on grass. Djokovic got going with three straight wins in the latter half of 2009, but Nadal snapped this with a huge win in the 2010 U.S. Open final. Nadal held the upper hand at 16-7 through 2010.
  2. Djokovic tore through Nadal and the ATP in 2011, defeating the Spaniard for seven straight titles including major wins at Wimbledon, U.S. Open and 2012 Australian Open. Nadal was holding a slim 16-14 rivalry edge, but Djokovic was streaking.
  3. Nadal peaked again with three straight clay-court wins in spring 2012, including the sodden two-day final at Roland Garros. Djokovic finally broke Nadal’s eight-year stranglehold at 2013 Monte Carlo, but Nadal bounced back with three more wins that were the keys to titles at the French, Canada and U.S. Opens. Nadal’s rivalry advantage swelled to 22-15.
  4. Djokovic then won the next four matches from late 2013 through Rome 2014, but he weakened in the 2014 French Open—the final time he would lose to the Spaniard. Perhaps this was the final catalyst to his seemingly maniacal commitment to crush Nadal each and every point from the moment the Spaniard walks out to the coin toss. He’s since run away with six straight match wins, and winning 10 of 11 matches puts King Novak at the 25-23 advantage with no end in sight.

Expect that Nadal could open up a fifth phase to their rivalry by winning one big match at Roland Garros. Imagine the clay king as playing the role of spoiler to King Novak’s destined march to his long-overdue entitlement to the French Open throne.

Suppose Nadal continues to strengthen at Madrid or Rome. What if he has the belief he will be at his very best on clay—a surface where Djokovic must be keeping one eye on the demons he has incarcerated somewhere near the changeover, hoping they will not escape and force him to the other side.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic reacts after a point against Spain's Rafael Nadal during their French tennis Open semi final match at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris on June 7, 2013. AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX        (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP/Gett
THOMAS COEX/Getty Images


Nadal’s Next Move

Give Nadal his due for winning Monte Carlo and Barcelona with impressive wins over Dominic Thiem, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori. They are the top clay-court challengers to Djokovic, and Nadal has made his case for being something closer to his former self or at least resembling the level he was at in spring 2014 when he had enough for his last major title.

But the Djokovic factor hovers over him like the Colossus of Rhodes. Nadal’s best form was historically enough to get by a less consistent Djokovic, but the Serb has actually put together his incredible talents to play more like the way Nadal used to play. That is, Djokovic’s defense allows his offense to play with margin and collaborative pressure. Stan Wawrinka, via Jeff Salzenstein, shared his perspective regarding the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry using the Monte Carlo results as the focal point: 

Tennis Evolution @JeffSalzenstein

Wawrinka: 'Djokovic´s defeat in Monte Carlo doesn´t change the situation, Nadal´s title does' I agree with the... https://t.co/XD3texYb7e

Ironically, Nadal will need to ratchet up his offensive aggressiveness early in rally exchanges, because it will be hard for him to outlast Djokovic’s high-percentage tennis, especially when the Serb is happy to tee off on Nadal’s high topspin if it’s left anything short of the baseline.

All of this assumes Nadal can keep dialing up his game, and that means he must show the durability and opportunistic coolness he flashed for two weeks in April. Will Nadal be ready to lift his game against Djokovic at Madrid or Rome? Winning one time against Djokovic could be what he needs for his ultimate belief to win the French Open. Craig O'Shannessy used Nadal's 2016 serving stats to illustrate just how dialed in he has been thus far: 

Craig O'Shannessy @BrainGameTennis

#Nadal SERVING in 2016 #1 on tour 1st Serve % = 71% Then hits a Serve +1 FH approx 80% of the time. Potent combo. https://t.co/W6etZUKW0J

Conversely, the Serb would love to bury the Spaniard’s belief before they touch down at Paris. The last thing Djokovic needs is a resurgent Nadal to bring his French Open mystique like an immortal Greek God coming back for battle upon the plains of Troy.

Will the rivalry resume? It only takes one Nadal win at this time of the year—and he might only get one shot. If the Spaniard crumbles in May or June, that could indeed be the rivalry’s final pages.

Could we get that last great battle in the rivalry, even a temporary renewal for one more epic showdown? We're about to find out.