Just three days shy of his 36th birthday, Rafael Nadal added another important chapter to his legacy, with his 11th Grand Slam victory over Novak Djokovic.
Although Nadal has enjoyed many victories over the Serbian in Paris, this was one of the sweetest, given that Djokovic had beaten him soundly at last year’s French Open.
In 2021, Djokovic seemed to have finally cracked the code. He used his forehand to push Nadal out wide, creating sharp angles that pinned the Spaniard to his backhand side.
With Nadal forced to hit more groundstrokes from his weaker wing, and unable to dictate the play with his heavy forehand, Djokovic picked him apart. He took control of key rallies, forcing the King of Clay to hit backhands “on the run” – over and over again.
Djokovic prevailed in 4 sets that day, en route to his his second French Open crown.
“I never thought he was unbeatable [on clay],” the World No. 1 declared in the aftermath.
Nadal seemed even more beatable this time, arriving at the tournament with little match practice and huge injury concerns. He even had his personal doctor sitting in the front row of his coaches’ box.
But as soon as this highly anticipated rematch began, it was clear that Nadal had no intention of playing “retriever” again.
Here are three key reasons why Nadal got his revenge at Roland Garros.
1. Avoiding Djokovic’s Forehand
Nadal clearly understood that Djokovic’s success last year was built around his forehand. It was the weapon that had driven him into the “double’s lines” of the backhand corner, or even off the court altogether.
Nadal kept the ball away from the Serbian’s forehand as much as possible, hitting a high percentage of his backhands down the line, rather than cross-court. Even when he found himself out of position, Nadal would send his backhand up the middle of the court. This limited the cross-court exchanges that Djokovic has often used to trap him and break his backhand down.
Djokovic’s only significant period of success on the forehand, came during the 2nd set, when he hit far more of his own backhands down the line. But he reverted back to his familiar cross-court patterns in sets 3 and 4.
For his part, Nadal made almost every forehand opportunity count, directing many of his biggest ones down the line, and maintaining a dominant court position.
2. Superior Endurance
There were serious questions about Nadal’s ability to go toe-to-toe with Djokovic over 5 sets after a marathon 4th round clash with Felix Auger-Alliassime. Djokovic arrived as the fresher player, having breezed through his first four matches, yet it was Nadal who appeared to have the stronger legs.
Both players set an unsustainable pace in the first 2 sets. The power and intensity of the rallies was staggering, but with both men pushing 36, it was never going to last. As their levels dropped in the final 2 sets, Nadal was more willing to extend the rallies and grind the match out. A huge surprise given Djokovic’s legendary fitness and the question marks over Nadal’s.
3. Out-serving Djokovic
It’s normally an extremely consistent and reliable tool, but Djokovic’s serve completely abandoned him at key moments in this match.
His first serve percentage dipped from his tournament average(prior to this match) of 71% to a measly 45%. Nadal’s, on the other hand, rose from his average of 65% to 71%.
The vast majority of Nadal’s serves targeted Djokovic’s backhand, particularly on the deuce side of the court. This forced the World No. 1 to go for low-percentage returns – either an “inside-out” backhand or a backhand down the line. When Djokovic struggled to execute these returns, Nadal either received an easy error or an offensive opportunity on his forehand. Both relieved a significant amount of pressure from his service games.