"Greatest rival that I ever had": Novak Djokovic on facing Rafael Nadal on clay

    The Hawk
    May31/ 2024
    Last Updated:

    Novak Djokovic, reflecting on his intense rivalry with Rafael Nadal, praised the 14-time French Open champion as his greatest-ever opponent. Facing Nadal 59 times, Djokovic highlighted the challenge of overcoming the 'King of Clay' at Roland Garros.

    Novak Djokovic & Rafael Nadal

    Paris [France]: The 24-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic reflected on the challenges he faced while playing against the 14-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal and hailed the tennis great Spaniard as his "greatest-ever rival."
    The Serbian has faced the Spaniard 59 times, which is 19 more than Nadal and Roger Federer combined.
    Djokovic heaped accolades on Nadal and the Serbian believes that one of the most challenging aspects of winning Roland Garros was having to face the 'King of Clay' Nadal.
    Djokovic, the top seed in Paris for the next two weeks, is hoping for his fourth major title. Though three Grand Slam titles are nothing to scoff at, there has been one man who has consistently stood in Djokovic's way at Roland Garros, where Nadal has an 8-2 record versus Djokovic, including three final wins.
    "He has been the greatest rival that I ever had. Matches against him on clay have frustrated me so much in my career. But they also made me a better player, made me understand what it takes to try to surpass him, try to win at least once or twice at Roland Garros," Djokovic said as quoted by ATP.
    "It's the highest mountain to climb for me to win Roland Garros, particularly because of Nadal, because I always have to win against him in order to get to the title," he added.
    Djokovic will not have to face Nadal if he wants to win a record-breaking 25th major title this week. The Spaniard, who was making his likely final Roland Garros debut, lost a first-round thriller against fourth seed Alexander Zverev.
    While this may be a comfort for the World No. 1 in the ATP Rankings, fans will lose out on another instalment of one of the sport's greatest rivalries, even if a prospective encounter would not have occurred until the semi-finals.
    "I think he peaked more than a few times against me, in Roland Garros particularly. I played him here for the first time back in 2006 and then the last time we played was in 2022. I have experienced first-hand his evolution as a player. I actually think that he improved his backhand as he was getting older. He was probably conscious of physical struggles that he had and he had to be more aggressive on the court," Djokovic said.
    "He was still topspinning the forehand better than anybody has ever done it and he still kept that incredible defence and offence on the forehand. But I think with the backhand, he was just able to handle the high balls better than he was maybe at the beginning of our encounters," he added.
    Djokovic leads Nadal 30-29 in their Lexus ATP Head-to-Head series, with their last two meetings at Roland Garros in 2022 and 2021. The 98-time tour-level champion recounted some of their most spectacular clashes at the French Open, including a remarkable four-hour, 37-minute semi-final in 2013 that Nadal won deep into the fifth set.
    "We had some really amazing encounters over the years. A couple of matches that really stand out that we played here against each other were that five-setter that he won, it was 9-7 in the fifth, semi-finals of 2013," Djokovic said.
    "Then, he didn't play his best, but I played probably the best match I ever played against him on clay here when I won against him in the quarters the year I lost in the final, 2015. When I won here in 2021, we played again, a very long semi-final, deep in the night. Same thing the year after, he beat me in quarters, also night session, 7-6 in the fourth," said the 24-time Grand Slam champion.