It is perhaps fair to say that great rivalries can define particular eras of the sport. We remember Sharjah because of India vs Pakistan; we remember tennis in the early 1980s thanks to McEnroe and Borg. We remember how the Celtics vs Lakers rivalry was a godsend for the NBA. We remember by Navratilova and Evert made it almost impossible for anyone else to win a Grand Slam in women’s tennis. And of course, we all remember Federer vs Nadal.
A great rivalry is something that fans yearn for. You take sides, you pray, you become superstitious, you invest time and money to back your favourite player. It seems to give watching sport a valuable context.
Some of these rivalries begin with a bang and some like the Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic rivalry began with a whimper. But even then it laid the seeds for what has over time developed into one of the greatest rivalries in tennis, currently standing at 57 matches, encompassing Grand Slams, Masters, Olympics and Davis Cups.
Their clashes now are defined by the relentlessness on view from both players. Both chase everything down, both don’t give up and the sheer physicality of the encounters leave even those watching exhausted.
Here’s a look back at their first clash which happened at Roland Garros in 2006:
Second seed Nadal was the defending champion having won the first of his 13 Roland Garros titles, and 20 majors overall, 12 months earlier at the age of 19.
Djokovic, world number one now, was then a brash 19-year-old ranked at 63.
“I’m going out there to win, not just play,” said Djokovic who had defeated three top 30 players to reach the quarter-finals.
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Djokovic was hoping the French crowd would get behind him on Court Philippe Chatrier. He had even donned a France football team shirt in his pre-match media conference hoping to tap into the national feelgood mood which would see Les Bleus reach the final of the World Cup in Germany that summer.
Unfortunately, the early afternoon start meant that most of the courtside seats were empty. Not even Nadal and Djokovic could compete with the attractions of lunchtime schmoozing in the nearby VIP restaurants.
Dressed in his white pedal-pushers, Nadal broke first, but Djokovic hit back. Nadal carved out another break for 2-1 and that was enough for the first set 6-4.
Both players exhibited mannerisms and habits which would become common-place over the next 15 years.
Commentators were intrigued by the number of times Djokovic bounced the ball between serves – “14, 15, 16”.
At the other end, cameras picked out ‘Vamos’ scribbled in pen on the heel of Nadal’s right shoe.
The champion, shoulder-length hair kept under control by a white bandana, showcased his fussy service action, punctuated by the picking at his shorts and mopping of his brow.
In no time at all, he was a double-break up for 3-0 before Djokovic retrieved one break to trail 2-4.
In between, Djokovic had taken a nasty-looking tumble into the red dust. He never looked comfortable again.
Nadal pocketed the second set 6-4 and three points into the third set, Djokovic retired with a back injury.
It was Nadal’s 58th consecutive win on clay.
The Serb stunned his news conference by insisting “I think I was in control of the match”.
“I was playing pretty well. Everything was depending on my racquet. Even with a sore back, I think I played equal.
“I think I could have won today. He’s not unbeatable.”
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Nadal was so baffled by Djokovic’s revisionist summary that when he was asked if he thought the Serb was right to state he had controlled proceedings, he demanded the question be translated into Spanish so he could be sure he understood.
“Oh yes,” said Nadal, tongue firmly in cheek and to howls of laughter. “If he thinks that, it’s OK. I don’t need to answer.”
TV pundits were equally perplexed.
“Novak, do you need smelling salts?” asked bemused former player and ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert.
“If you want to incite Rafa, the next time you play, he’s going to drop the hammer on you. It was heavyweight against middleweight out there.”
Gilbert was right. Nadal won all nine of the pair’s first clay-court meetings. It took Djokovic until Madrid in 2011 to achieve his maiden victory on the surface against the Spanish star.
Nadal went on to win Roland Garros that year and defended it in 2007 and 2008. He was sinking his teeth into the Coupe des Mousquetaires again in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Djokovic has lost three Paris finals to Nadal – in 2012, 2014 and 2020 – but claimed his first and only Roland Garros title in 2016.
However, he still retains the consolation of being one of only two men to have beaten Nadal at the tournament – in the 2015 quarter-finals.
And what about those 57 meetings? Well, Djokovic currently leads 29-28.
(With inputs from AFP)