When Novak Djokovic met Rafael Nadal in 2013 US Open final – it was their 37th career meeting. With it, they overtook Ivan Lendl v John McEnroe (36) as the leading rivalry in Open era.
The rivalry matters to tennis — because all sports are defined by rivalries, without that it's just like watching practice between two individuals who don’t matter. Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf-Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova-Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe, Boris Becker-Stefan Edberg, Chris Evert-Evonne Goolagong-Cauley — what would tennis be without them…
The previous decade was all about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — and the Spaniard comprehensively won that one 21-10. One really doesn’t see Federer fighting his way back into that one. And so we moved on to Nadal vs Djokovic — the marquee rivalry of the current age, one that rarely disappoints.
The current head-to-head record between Nadal and Djokovic stands at 22-15 in favour of the Spaniard after the US Open final. But the numbers are slightly misleading and don’t quite tell you that after the Australian Open in 2012, Nadal only led Djokovic in H2H encounters by a slender margin of 16-14. That also included a run of seven consecutive wins for the Serbian.
To everyone watching Djokovic dominate the Spaniard, it seemed like tennis would never experience the Nadal age. The left-hander had been world No 2 for a record 160 weeks as Federer dominated all surfaces other than clay and suddenly the feeling was that he might never have his moment in the sun.
Then it got worse. A knee injury knocked Nadal out of tennis… no one quite knew for how long.
And while he was out, Djokovic swept all before him. Somewhere in the middle, Roger Federer won Wimbledon, Andy Murray won the gold at the Olympics and a Grand Slam at the US Open. While Nadal was away, the dynamics of the tennis world had changed — many thought, irrevocably.
Then Nadal made a comeback, and what a comeback it was.
Rafael Nadal in 2013: WWWLWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWLWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWLWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW.
— Bryan Armen Graham (@BryanAGraham) September 10, 2013
For those who don’t want to go through the trouble of counting, the above tweet translates to a phenomenal 60-3 win-loss record to date this year. Nadal beating the others is almost a given but defeating Djokovic on hard courts is what makes this even better.
The hard court is Djokovic’s best surface. He was playing his fourth straight US Open final. Only Connors (1974-78), Lendl (1982-89) & Federer (2004-09) have longer streaks, and against Nadal, going into the final — he had won 11 out of 17 matches on the surface and three out of five in Slam finals.
But Nadal, stubbornly, found a way to win. Lung-busting rallies were the call of the hour, but what really defines these matches is the tactical play. Djokovic’s win streak against Nadal in 2011 and 2012 was built on a rock-solid backhand that allowed him to find acute angles. So last night, Nadal attacked the Djokovic forehand.
Previously, Djokovic would attack the Nadal serve, so the Spaniard broke it down and built it up again — stronger. In the final, he won 65 percent of his first serve points and 56 percent of his second serve points, which against the best returner in the world, is big.
The overall improvement in Nadal’s game forced Djokovic to go for winners — he hit 46 winners to Rafa’s 27 and that in turn also led to more unforced errors — 53 to the Spaniard’s 20.
The one number that however made the big difference was the break point conversion rate. Djokovic earned 11 breakpoints but converted just three of them. Nadal, on the other hand, converted seven of 12. Simply put, Djokovic backed Nadal into a corner many times — but the Spaniard almost always found a way out of it.
Nadal dominated Djokovic in the early years of their rivalry, then a gluten-free Djokovic came back in a big way. Now, Nadal 2.0, armed with a stronger serve is redefining the rivalry once more. Before too long, Djokovic will need an upgrade too.
The Djokovic vs Nadal rivalry will resume in China in three weeks at the China Open in Beijing first and then the Shanghai Rolex Masters.
Till then, Nadal’s words will echo in the minds of all those who watched the final: “At the end, the most important thing is having the trophy, but it’s more special winning against a big player like Novak.”