Nadal and Djokovic: Two warhorses show us why they're GOATs

Both champions had to dig deep to be in Friday's Wimbledon semifinals, writes Sumit Chakraberty



Novak Djokovic (right) and Rafael Nadal, the two ageing champions, continue to overcome the challenges of rising stars in five-set epics. (AFP)
Novak Djokovic (right) and Rafael Nadal, the two ageing champions, continue to overcome the challenges of rising stars in five-set epics. (AFP)

By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Thu 7 Jul 2022, 9:41 PM

Warhorse, GOAT (greatest of all time), call them what you will. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have put on a show at Wimbledon 2022 that is as inspiring as anything in sport. Both had to dig deep into all their reserves of skill, experience, and mental fortitude to overcome adversity and tough quarterfinal opponents to be in the semifinals on Friday.

Hearts sank when Nadal doubled over in agony after a serve midway through the second set, having already lost the first set in his quarterfinal against Taylor Fritz, the tall American who had beaten him in a three-set Masters hardcourt final at Indian Wells, USA, three months earlier. The winner of 22 Grand Slam titles took a medical timeout for treatment of his injured lower abdominal muscles, and even his compatriot and friend, Feliciano Lopez, in the commentary box remarked, “This is it!”

Nadal was severely handicapped when he reappeared on court. He had no power in his first serve and could not bend to execute his famous angled backhand flicks. His father gesticulated to him from courtside to retire hurt. But the winner of the Australian and French Open titles this year not only carried on but found a way to pinch the second set 7-5.

Fritz had said before the quarterfinal that he would be just as aggressive against Nadal as he had been at Indian Wells. But it was Nadal who came out firing, going 3-1 up in the first set. He missed a chance for a double break with an ill-chosen drop shot that turned the tide. It became apparent in the latter half of that set that Nadal wasn’t moving in his usual athletic way, prompting commentators and cameras to zoom in on his left ankle.

The two-time Wimbledon champion had been keeping points short this time to minimise pressure on his chronic left foot bone injury. Hence his more aggressive approach. But he made a 180 degree turn in his gameplan during the medical timeout. He switched to what had helped him succeed in the 2008 final against Roger Federer who had won the previous five Wimbledon titles in succession.

Flat shots generally work better on Wimbledon’s skiddy grass courts, but Nadal pinned Fritz on the backhand with loopy topspins landing unerringly in the corner, just as he had done with Federer. The topspin bounces so steeply that it’s hard to hit backhand shots without errors. And as soon as Fritz made any move to the left to hit harder or even run around to use his forehand, Nadal would pull out another shot he’s famous for — the forehand down the line winner.

The topspin maestro also played more defensively after coming back out on court, using deep backhand slices. If Nadal’s aggression threw Fritz off balance at the start of the match, now the American suddenly found himself having to take the initiative by hitting harder and harder, and inevitably became more erratic. Nadal, on the other hand, used all his skill and guile to mix up the play and pounce with a winner every chance he got.

For all his brilliance and fortitude, however, Nadal’s physical limitations evened out the contest. He had to win every point with a rally even on his own service games because he was serving at around 90 mph compared to Fritz’s 130 mph. While the 24-year-old 6-foot-5-inch American unleashed aces, the 36-year-old 6-foot-1-inch Spaniard could only aim for the lines with his first serve to take his opponent off balance. Fritz went 2-1 up, winning the third set, and Nadal equalised in a seesaw fourth set battle.

They exchanged breaks midway through the final set which went into a tiebreaker. By now Nadal was moving faster and hitting harder as the painkillers and adrenaline did their work. Fritz, on the other hand, showed signs of frayed nerves. Nadal surged ahead to win the tiebreaker with elan.

This was as great a come-from-behind victory, considering his physical state, as Nadal’s Australian Open final triumph over US Open champion Daniil Medvedev early this year, after the Spaniard’s six-month layoff following ankle surgery.

It’s anybody’s guess if Nadal will be fit enough to play the semifinal where an even more formidable opponent awaits him — Nick Kyrgios, who made a stunning Wimbledon debut in 2014, beating Nadal en route to a quarterfinal. The hugely talented but notoriously idiosyncratic Australian is in his first Grand Slam semifinal after all but disappearing from the circuit.

Kyrgios took out fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in an ill-tempered third round encounter. Thereafter the Australian has directed his ire at himself and his courtside support group on losing points. His groundstrokes can be erratic, but he has the firepower to take on Nadal.

Meanwhile, the Spaniard’s arch rival in the race for the mantle of GOAT, Djokovic, also did a Houdini act in the quarterfinals. The Serbian top seed went two sets down to a fast-rising 20-year-old Italian with a booming serve and forehand, Jannik Sinner. Then the champion took a bathroom break and had a face-to-face chat with himself in the mirror, as he disclosed in a post-match interview.

Djokovic started the match strongly against a subdued Sinner who was playing his first match on the hallowed centre court of Wimbledon. But the Serb had an uncharacteristic brain fade after going 4-1 up, gifting a service break with two poor drop shots and two double-faults. That was just the shot in the arm Sinner needed to wake up and dominate the defending Wimbledon champion who became increasingly tentative, losing the first set 5-7 and then the second one 2-6. He lost 12 games and won only three in that stretch.

After the bathroom break, however, we saw the six-time Wimbledon champion at his best, going back to his forte - returning serves like nobody else can, exploiting Sinner’s weaker backhand in baseline rallies, and serving with precision to win the last three sets in imperious fashion 6-3, 6-3, 6-2.

In Nadal’s case it was a matter of figuring out the best he could do with his physical limitations, drawing on his enormous experience and repertoire. For Djokovic, it was a mental switch to wrest the initiative back from his opponent.

While Nadal had the overwhelming support of the Wimbledon crowd to overcome his pain, Djokovic as usual had only his own support box to bolster his self-belief. Never a crowd favourite, except at his US Open final encounter with Medvedev, the Serb will have an even more one-sided audience in the semifinal against British No.1 Cameron Norrie.

It has been a tough year for Djokovic after being deported from Australia for refusing to be vaccinated against Covid-19. And it may be another long wait before he plays another Grand Slam event because his entry to the US is barred. This makes the pressure to win at Wimbledon even greater.

Two warhorses, two GOATs, and two kinds of pressure, physical and mental. That’s what is in store for us in the Wimbledon semifinals on Friday.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

THE FIVE-SET MASTERS

For the seventh time in his astonishing career, Novak Djokovic, 35, fought back from two sets down to win a five-set battle when he overcame the challenge of rising Italian star Jannik Sinner, 20, on Tuesday at Wimbledon.

Djokovic’s seven two-set comebacks

Year Tournament Round Opponent Score

2022 Wimbledon QF Jannik Sinner 5-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2

2021 French Open F Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7(6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4

2021 French Open R16 Lorenzo Musetti 6-7(7), 6-7(2), 6-1, 6-0, 4-0 ret.

2015 Wimbledon R16 Kevin Anderson 6-7(6), 6-7(6), 6-1, 6-4, 7-5

2012 French Open R16 Andreas Seppi 4-6, 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-5, 6-3

2011 US Open SF Roger Federer 6-7(7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5

2005 Wimbledon R64 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 3-6, 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(3), 6-4

The Big Three in five-setters

NOVAK DJOKOVIC

37-10

Djokovic is now 10-1 in five-setters at Wimbledon. The six-time champion’s only loss in those matches came in the fourth round in 2006 against Mario Ancic when Djokovic was 19. The Serbian is 37-10 in five-setters overall and has won his past eight five-set matches. He has not lost one since the Roland Garros semifinals in 2019, when Dominic Thiem defeated him. The only player who has won more five-set matches is former world number one Ilie Nastase (42-23).

RAFAEL NADAL

26-13

Wednesday’s quarterfinal victory over the 24-year-old American Taylor Fritz was Rafael Nadal’s fourth consecutive triumph in a five-set match. The 36-year-old Spaniard also went the distance this year in wins against younger rivals Denis Shapovalov, 23, and Daniil Medvedev, 26, at the Australian Open, and Felix Auger-Aliassime, 21, at Roland Garros. The Spaniard’s career record in five-setters now stands at 26-13.

ROGER FEDERER

32-23

The 40-year-old Federer, the oldest member of the Big Three in tennis, has a 32-23 record in five sets matches. Remarkably, Federer won six straight five-setters between the Australian Open 2017 and 2018 against younger rivals — Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka, Rafael Nadal, Marin Cilic in Australia and Frances Tiafoe and Mikhail Youzhny at the US Open. But Federer has lost all four of his five set matches against Novak Djokovic.


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