Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal kicked off their rivalry at Roland Garros 2006, with the Serb retiring in the quarter-final after the second set. Fifteen years later, Novak and Rafa are still among the world's leading players and the favorites at Roland Garros, with a projected semi-final clash next week.
In his pre-tournament press conference, Novak said he has to find a way to raise his level and challenge Rafa on clay after five straight losses. Mentioning the last year's Roland Garros final, the Serb admitted that the Spaniard produced an excellent level of tennis and left him behind, hoping for a different outcome next week after a tight Rome Open final.
Last October, Nadal toppled Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in two hours and 41 minutes to lift the 13th trophy from 16 trips to Paris. At 34, Nadal became the second-oldest Roland Garros champion in the Open era, beating all seven rivals in straight sets to extend his clay-court dominance and write tennis history.
Losing serve only eight times in seven matches, Nadal delivered one of his best serving displays in Paris since debuting in 2005, pushing the rivals to the limits and enduring three tight sets against Jannik Sinner, Diego Schwartzman and Novak Djokovic.
In the final, Rafa had to bring aggressive and bold tennis against Novak, losing many matches against the Serb since Beijing 2013 and delivering the right tactic to leave Novak far behind. Nadal fired 31 winners and 14 unforced errors, performing strongly from both wings and taking 51% of the return points to steal the power from Djokovic's initial shot.
Novak sprayed 52 unforced errors and searched for his A-game for over two hours to suffer a massive loss despite a solid effort in set number three.
Novak Djokovic reflected on last year's Roland Garros final. vs Rafael Nadal.
Rafa lost serve once, produced seven breaks and outplayed Novak in the shortest range up to four strokes to forge the crucial difference.
Nadal made a bagel in the opening set, the first in the Roland Garros finals since 2008 when he served one to Roger Federer. Rafa faced no break points in set number two, tamed his strokes nicely and secured two breaks to forge a 6-0, 6-2 advantage in an hour and 34 minutes.
Eager to avoid disaster, Djokovic pulled the break back in the third set's sixth game, roaring towards his box and gaining momentum. With no room for errors on serve, Nadal held comfortably in games eight, ten and 12, earned a break at 5-5 after Novak's double fault and sealed the deal with a hold at love a few minutes later.
"The win in Belgrade gave me excellent preparation. I'm in a good state of mind and body, striking the ball well. Now it's really about just taking step by step, being in the present moment and building the form to play better and better as the tournament progresses.
When you speak about Rafa, you know that he's always going to give you his best on any surface. He's always going to produce some high-quality tennis, particularly on clay. That's his most preferred surface and where he's always at his best.
Record-wise, I lost the last five matches on clay against Rafa; we had some close battles, and he dominated the others. I couldn't match his level, and it's always high when he plays on clay; if you can't respond in the same way, you don't stand a chance against him.
I know there's a build-up potentially for that match-up in the semi-final, but there are many obstacles to overcome before that. If we get there, of course, I know what is expected of me and what I need to do. Last year, I had a great run at Roland Garros, but he played fantastic tennis in the final and I couldn't do much.
Hopefully, if I get a chance to play him again in Paris, the level of my tennis will be different. For example, we pushed each other to the limits in Rome a few weeks ago, staying in touch until the last point. That match gives me good feelings ahead of our potential clash here in Paris. Still, we both have to stay focused only on our next match," Novak Djokovic said.