The GOAT who 
dances on red clay

Novak Djokovic’s rivalry with 
Rafael Nadal is an unfinished business

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By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Thu 9 Jun 2022, 9:14 PM

Imagine the greatest table-tennis player of all time, Ma Long, whipping a forehand topspin. Now imagine him doing that left-handed on a tennis court. That’s Rafael Nadal for you.

Nadal’s playing style is more common in TT than tennis. The whippy forehand and backhand jab are easier to execute with a TT racquet on a TT table. If you try that with a much heavier tennis racquet on a 78-foot-long court, you’d sprain a wrist and look foolish.

That’s why you don’t see a Nadal clone on the tennis circuit despite the Spaniard’s éclat in notching up 22 Grand Slam titles. What he does is physically hard to copy — just as hard as it is for another bowler to reproduce the bodily contortions of a Lasith Malinga delivery in cricket with the same speed and control.

It’s something you would have to start doing from a very early age without a parent, uncle or coach forcing you to abandon it for a more conventional style. Plus, you would need the right physical attributes — in Nadal’s case, an extremely strong and flexible wrist for control, powered by forearms and biceps that produce sufficient force, and a strong lower body for stability.

At a shade over six feet, he also has the perfect height for it. Any taller would make it much more taxing to bend and execute the topspins and jabs. Any shorter would be too much of a handicap on the tennis serve.

Nadal’s archrivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, being right-handed, are both vulnerable to the left-handed Nadal’s forehand topspin whiplash. Federer was the first to suffer, losing the 2005 French Open semi-final to Nadal in the 19-year-old Spaniard’s run to his first Grand Slam title. This beating was repeated in the 2006, 2007, and 2008 finals at Roland Garros.

It was painful to see the Federer elan disturbed by constantly being forced to execute awkward shoulder-high backhand slices. Federer’s flowing single-handed backhand, one of the classiest spectacles in tennis, became a handicap against Nadal’s loopy forehand topspin with a dash of sidespin.

Federer got his own back to an extent on the grass of Wimbledon where the ball skids through faster and lower than on the red clay of Roland Garros where it sits up and asks to be topspin by Nadal. But the Spaniard did put one over the Swiss master of grass in a five-setter in the 2008 Wimbledon final after losing two consecutive finals to Federer.

You would have to say Nadal had the wood on Federer psychologically because of his utter domination at the French Open where the Spaniard won all their six encounters. Federer has a 3-1 record against Nadal at Wimbledon, after avenging his 2008 loss in the 2019 semi-final. Nadal has a similar 3-1 record against Federer at the Australian Open. And somehow, they’ve never played each other at the US Open.

Overall, Nadal now has a lead of two Grand Slam titles over Federer who is past 40 and recovering from his third knee surgery. Rivalry for the mantle of GOAT (greatest of all time) seems over between those two, but there will always be nostalgia for the fading glory of classic lawn tennis that Federer epitomises.

It’s another matter when it comes to Djokovic, however. He’s year younger than 36-year-old Nadal and fit as a fiddle.

The Serb appeared to have settled the GOAT debate last year when he won the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon back-to-back to catch up with Federer and Nadal in tallying 20 Grand Slam titles. Then the six-foot-six-inch Alexander Zverev, currently the World No.3, ended his quest for a Golden Slam at the Olympics, and the equally tall and powerful Daniil Medvedev, currently the World No.2, denied him a Grand Slam by beating him in the US Open final.

Djokovic compounded his slide by refusing to be vaccinated against Covid at the cost of losing the chance to defend his Australian Open title. This coincided with Nadal’s unexpected resurgence after a six-month layoff for treatment of his chronic left foot bone disorder. The latest episode of the GOAT rivalry between them was a clash in the French Open quarter-final. It turned into a topsy-turvy battle that Nadal won in a fourth set tiebreaker, extending his lead over Djokovic to 8-2 at Roland Garros.

Djokovic has the staying power in long rallies to beat Nadal at his own game of retrieving every ball until opponents start erring by going for too much. His economy of movement and balance as his body flows through shot after shot metronomically comes as close to tennis perfection as you can get. If Nadal plays wristy TT on a tennis court, contrasting with Federer’s flowing groundstrokes and volleys that hark back to the way tennis used to be played, Djokovic brings biomechanical precision to the modern baseline game suited to artificial surfaces.

Like everyone else, Djokovic comes undone against Nadal on the red clay of Roland Garros that favours Nadal’s topspin whereas the slowness of the surface reduces Djokovic’s chances of producing a winner before an error. Still, two out of Nadal’s three losses in 115 matches at the French Open came against Djokovic in 2015 and 2021. Nadal’s first loss at Roland Garros came earlier in 2009 in a quarter-final upset against Robin Soderling who opened the door to Federer’s only French Open title.

Djokovic lost the 2015 final to Stan Wawrinka after beating Nadal but claimed his first title the next year after Nadal’s withdrawal midway through the tournament due to a wrist sprain. Yes, even the great man’s wrist could not always withstand the extreme topspin.

Djokovic won his second French Open title by beating Nadal in the 2021 semi-final en route to a five-set thriller in the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, with the Serb coming back from two sets down. That made Djokovic the first one in the Big Three to win two titles at each of the four Grand Slam venues. Nadal matched that this year by winning his second Australian Open title, after being two sets down against Medvedev in the final.

The symmetry between the two GOAT contenders is uncanny. But a closer examination shows Djokovic’s superiority away from Roland Garros. It was in the first five years of his Grand Slam appearances that he kept losing to either Federer or Nadal, and even gaining notoriety for abandoning long matches. A new diet and fitness regime made him something else in 2011.

Nadal has never beaten Djokovic at Wimbledon since then, and he doesn’t have a single win over Djokovic in his entire career at the Australian Open, the Serb’s most successful arena. The Spaniard won the 2022 Australian Open in Djokovic’s absence and the 2009 edition after Djokovic’s withdrawal in his quarter-final against Jo Wilfred Tsonga due to heat stress. Nadal’s last win over Djokovic at the US Open was nine years back in 2013 and the two haven’t met there since then.

Djokovic has six Wimbledon titles, only two short of Federer’s eight, and nine Australian Open titles, a record. Nadal has two titles at each of these two venues, giving Djokovic a 15-4 combined head-to-head lead. That’s comparable to Nadal’s 14-2 lead over Djokovic in French Open titles.

Nadal’s overall lead of two Grand Slam titles over Djokovic crowns the Spaniard GOAT in terms of stats, for now. And the trio of Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer are so far ahead of greats from the earlier eras that the debate mostly focuses on the Big Three. The next highest tally of Grand Slam titles is Pete Sampras’s 14, and the American never even made it to a French Open final.

But you do have to talk about two potential GOATs from the past. Bjorn Borg won six French Open titles and five consecutive Wimbledon titles by the time he was 25 years old. The Swedish star walked away from the sport after his loss to John McEnroe in both the Wimbledon and US Open finals in 1981, only showing up in a few sideshow tournaments after that. He didn’t want to subject himself to the stress of playing at least 10 official tournaments a year, as tour organisers demanded from players by then. We can only guess how many titles Borg might have amassed beyond the 11 he won if he had continued playing another 10 years into his mid-thirties.

Another great from the past who doesn’t get his due from the stats is Australian left-hander Rod Laver. He was at his prime in the transition era of the sixties when professional players were barred from playing in the Grand Slam tournaments. Laver won the Grand Slam in 1962, winning all four titles in the same calendar year before turning pro. He again won the Grand Slam in 1969 at the start of the Open era when the major tournaments let professionals back in. Nobody else has ever won two Grand Slams and Laver’s also the only one to have done it in the Open era. Djokovic came tantalisingly close to it last year, and Nadal is on track this year after winning the first two Grand Slam tournaments of 2022.

The current rivalry between the two for the mantle of GOAT is unfinished. Djokovic has more chances of increasing his tally of Grand Slam titles than Nadal, although the Spaniard keeps proving doubters wrong.

Sadly, for Nadal, it may come down to how effective a radio frequency procedure is to deaden the nerves in his painful left foot. He played the French Open with a foot numbed by pain-killing injections and has said he would not do that again because of the risk of aggravating his bone disorder first diagnosed when he was just 19.

As for Djokovic, his main hurdles to winning more titles are the height, reach, and power of the new crop of challengers, mainly Zverev and Medvedev. Both of them will miss this year’s Wimbledon — Zverev has just had surgery for the ankle ligaments he tore in his semi-final against Nadal at the French Open, which came to an abrupt halt after an enthralling three hours in which not even two sets were completed; Medvedev misses out because of a political move to keep out players from Russia and Belarus in response to the military action in Ukraine.

This raises the possibility of Djokovic getting the better of his Spanish rival on grass and winning an elusive 21st Grand Slam title. But even that would keep the GOAT question open. Of course, if Nadal wins a third Wimbledon title after radio frequency intervention, all will hail him as GOAT without any reservations.

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