“Watching Rafa play at Roland Garros to me is like watching your favorite movie,” two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka tweeted as Rafael Nadal was making short work of Cameron Norrie in the French Open’s third round. “You enjoy it a lot but you kinda already know what is going to happen.”
This was true … until it wasn’t. Nadal ground his way through to the semifinals as always, stretching his latest Roland Garros winning streak to 35 matches and moving to 105-2 all time in Paris. But in the semifinals, old rival Novak Djokovic knocked him to 105-3. Nadal opened up a 5-0 lead in the first set, but Djokovic landed lots of body blows, looked like the fresher player throughout, and took down the champ in four sets, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2.
That score line does not do the match justice, however. The first three sets stretched 3½ hours, and the plot twists came fast and furious. The two combined for 98 winners, combined to save 24 break points and engaged in 57 rallies of nine or more shots. Announcer Mary Carillo called it her favorite Djokovic-Nadal match in the third set. Things fizzled out at the end, with Djokovic winning the last six games to put things away. But this was a spectacular match.
Where does Friday’s match rank in the Djokovic-Nadal oeuvre?
This rivalry has been marked by extreme momentum swings. Nadal found his top gear on tour earlier than Djokovic and won five of the first six matches between them; then they split four. Nadal won seven of the next eight, then Djokovic found himself and won 10 of 12. Nadal got the upper hand again, winning six of seven over the next two years, but Djokovic won 11 of 12 from 2013 to 2016 while Nadal was battling injury and form issues. But then Djokovic dealt with his own set of injuries and issues, and Nadal had won five of the past eight — with all wins coming on clay — before Djokovic’s Friday win.
For such an even series — Djokovic has 30 wins to Nadal’s 28 — a large percentage of the matches have been straight-sets wins one way or the other. Still, when you play 58 times, 29 times in tournament finals, you’re going to play some classics, and they’ve had their fair share. Let’s rank their top 10 battles.
10. 2014 French Open finals
Winner: Nadal 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4
Nadal at his grinding best. Coming off of a straight-sets demolition of Andy Murray, Nadal couldn’t quite hit the same high notes, so he took to outlasting Djokovic instead. Djokovic struck quickly, but Nadal took control late in the second set. Down a break in the fourth, Djokovic came back to even things at 4-all, but then he blinked. He double-faulted on Nadal’s first match point to give the Spaniard his fifth French Open title in a row.
9. 2011 Miami finals
Winner: Djokovic 4-6, 6-3, 7-6
Unbeaten to date in 2011, Djokovic controlled most of the match, but Nadal won six of eight break points in the first set — four on his serve, two on Djokovic’s — before the match turned into a big-serving battle late. The third set quickly rolled to a tiebreaker, where Nadal double-faulted at 2-2. Djokovic’s lead quickly ballooned to 6-2, but Nadal saved two match points before a Djokovic forehand winner sealed the deal.
8. 2011 Wimbledon finals
Winner: Djokovic 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3
Djokovic was 0-5 against Nadal in Slams to date, but after winning the Australian Open and taking four in a row against Nadal in the spring of 2011, he was ultraconfident, and it showed. The 24-year-old committed only 16 unforced errors in four sets, outserved Nadal and officially became the sport’s dominant force. Nadal had won four of the past five Slams, but this was the first of three straight finals he would lose to Djokovic.
7. 2010 US Open finals
Winner: Nadal 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2
The reverse of Friday’s battle in Paris. Nadal won his third major title in a row and became the sixth player to win a career Grand Slam by trading heavyweight blows with Djokovic and finally wearing him down at the end. Djokovic was coming off of the biggest win of his career, a five-setter over Roger Federer, and he saved 20 of 26 break points, but Nadal teed off on his second serve late in the match and pulled away.
6. 2012 French Open finals
Winner: Nadal 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5
This was their fourth battle at Roland Garros, and Djokovic had yet to take a set. Nadal had already taken him down twice on clay that spring, and this match looked pretty routine out of the gates. But then Djokovic began landing some haymakers. He broke Nadal three times in the third set, then immediately did so again in the fourth set. But then Nadal did what Nadal seemed to always do: break back immediately, then simply break his opponent.
5. 2021 French Open semifinals
Winner: Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2
If this had been a best-of-three match, it might have ranked even higher. Nadal raced to a 5-0 lead and easily disposed of quite a few early drop-shot attempts from Djokovic. But Djokovic seemed to be trying to take his legs away from him as much as anything, and it ended up working. Djokovic controlled the second set and served for the third at 5-4, but Nadal did Nadal things to rally and send it to a tiebreaker. A Djokovic ace gave him a set point, however, and he closed out the set. Nadal quickly broke in the fourth to bring hope of a rally, but Djokovic won the last six games.
4. 2009 Madrid semifinals
Winner: Nadal 3-6, 7-6, 7-6
Three sets, four hours. Djokovic genuinely seemed like the better of the two foes for much of the way, but Nadal saved four second-set break points and eked out a tiebreak win. In the third set, Djokovic got an early break before — of course — Nadal took it right back. In the deciding tiebreak, Djokovic earned match points at 6-5, 7-6 and 9-8, but Nadal saved them all with two big winners after huge rallies and a big serve. Nadal took the last three points, and that was that.
Now to the three classics:
3. 2018 Wimbledon semifinals
Winner: Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8
Djokovic’s “I’m back” moment. In his first Slam semifinal since the 2016 US Open, Djokovic basically had to beat Nadal twice. First, he took two of three sets, winning the third in an epic 13-11 tiebreaker. But curfew kicked in, and the combatants had to return the next day. After Nadal took the fourth set, the two engaged in their greatest set. Djokovic served out of a 15-40 jam at 4-all and 7-all, and Nadal had to save a match point at 7-8.
Finally, after 5 hours and 15 minutes, Djokovic broke. He then took down Kevin Anderson to win his first Slam in over two years.
2. 2013 French Open semifinals
Winner: Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 9-7
After missing quite a few months with a knee injury, Nadal hit fifth gear in Paris, sweeping Fabio Fognini, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka to reach the semis, then taking two of three sets to go up on Djokovic. He twice went up a break in the fourth set, but Djokovic broke back both times, won the fourth-set tiebreaker and quickly went up a break in the fifth. But he accidentally touched the net putting away a volley on deuce at 4-3 and Nadal broke back.
Djokovic missed several chances with blown overheads, and eventually Nadal sealed the deal with a break in the 16th game of the set. He then swept David Ferrer to win French Open title No. 8.
1. 2012 Australian Open finals
Winner: Djokovic 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5
If these two ever top this match, it will be the pinnacle of what this sport can produce. At some point, this battle went from athletic to existential. They fought for 5 hours and 53 minutes in this one. They both had to sit during the awards ceremony.
After dominating the third set, Djokovic nearly sealed the deal in the fourth. But Nadal saved three break points to take it to a tiebreaker and took it, 7-5. At 4-4 in the fifth set, they produced one of their greatest rallies, a 31-shot epic that left Djokovic on his back after an error. Nadal took that game, but somehow Djokovic rallied to take the last three and the match.