This was meant to be.
The current best player on the planet would face the reigning (just about) King Of Clay in the quarterfinals. The last time they faced each other so early in the tournament was the first time they ever played each other on the pro tour.
Back in 2006, when Nadal was already a one-time French Open
Champion and Federer’s to-be arch nemesis, he faced the upcoming Serb—who was still ruled by gluten, age and fitness—in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. It was Djokovic’s first foray to the last 8 on the big stage, and after losing two sets, he duly retired. He wasn’t the Djoker back then, he was just the new joker. He didn’t take himself as seriously as Nadal did at the same age. These were the days when guys like Roddick would taunt Djokovic for his ‘retirement’ record, while others urged him to be mentally tougher. Not many, including Djokovic himself, knew that his medical condition would take so long to be discovered.
In 2007, they faced each other again in the semifinals at Paris. Djokovic went on to lose in straight sets, before conceding yet another big game (Wimbledon semifinal) through retirement to the Spaniard. Clearly, there were two minds, but just one body playing out there.
Once again, in 2008, Djokovic lost to Nadal in the semifinals. By now, most players had discovered that Nadal was never going to be beaten on clay. By now, Nadal had discovered that he was the only player on the planet who could make Federer
sweat and suffer. He was already torturing the Swiss on other surfaces, and his clay court dominance only established him as the no. 1 player in the world. The teen was now a full-grown bulldozer, routinely defeating Djokovic and Federer every year at Paris, mostly back to back.
The next time they faced each other at Paris was in 2012. The tables had turned drastically by now. Over 2011, Djokovic had strung together a streak of 7 consecutive wins over all surfaces against Nadal. Just like Federer’s career was diminished by Nadal, his own career had been halted by Djokovic. These defeats included the Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open Finals. Djokovic somehow failed to reach the 2011 French Open Final, after defeating Nadal at Madrid and Rome. If he had reached the final riding on the one-sided momentum, Djokovic could have probably out-battled Nadal mentally over 5 sets. But it wasn’t to be. An opportunity was lost, and when they faced off again in 2012, Nadal was back on his side of the board by defeating the Serb at Monte Carlo and Rome. Order had been restored, and the 2012 almost went on for 4 hours—a slugfest, the first of many on various surfaces—before Nadal prevailed in 4 tight sets. This was his 7th French Open title.
In 2013 again, Djokovic defeated Nadal at Monte Carlo, and entered Paris as the odds-on favourite. But this was not to be his year, just like 2011 wasn’t Nadal’s year. In a match that lasted 5 hours and 53 minutes, possibly the greatest clay court final of all time, Nadal prevailed 9-7 in the fifth—sweet revenge for the sapping heart-shattering 2012 Australian Open Final defeat. This destroyed the Serb temporarily, who went on to lose the US Open final to Nadal later in the year. Nadal was fighting nobody but his own body by now.
In 2014, Djokovic won a closely fought Rome Final. With Nadal’s failing body and his comeback after more than 8 months of inactivity, this was Djokovic’s best chance to banish memories of the previous year and become the 8th player ever to win the ‘Golden’ Slam (all 4 surfaces). But again, after starting badly, Nadal hit back and found his groove, and won in 4 sets.
This was Nadal’s 6th French Open win over Djokovic
, and his 9th title here. This was also Nadal’s 14th Grand Slam title, 3 away from Federer, and tied with Pete Sampras on the all-time list. The GOAT tag was within his reach.
But much has changed in the last 360 days. And mostly, with Nadal, and his body, and worryingly, his mind—as demonstrated by his low-key post-match conferences.
2015 has to be the year, surely.
Djokovic breezed past him at Monte Carlo, and now looks unbeatable in every tournament he enters. He has won everything there is to win this year (except Dubai), and is World No. 1 by a long margin. Nadal has struggled through his season, and has reached the quarterfinals at his spiritual home without any hiccups.
They will face each other for the 44th time in their career (that’s right). Nadal leads 23-20, but Djokovic’s 21st victory, many suspect, could be worth another 20. Is this the year?
Is this the year Novak Djokovic wins everything? If he does win this, there’s no stopping him, and he will have already won Wimbledon and US Open titles in his mind. His dominance is overwhelming, and only an underdog can stop him.