Wimbledon 2018: Novak Djokovic survives epic against Rafael Nadal to reach first Major final in two years
Novak Djokovic beats Rafael Nadal n five epic sets to reach the Wimbledon final
Where to begin with the most played tennis rivalry in modern tennis?
Two of the greatest players of their age were about to extend their own record as the most-played rivalry. Novak Djokovic, a three-time Wimbledon champion, and Rafael Nadal, twice winner here, both of them former No1s, would meet for an astonishing 52nd time. What is more, they could not be more closely matched: 26 and 25 wins respectively.
They had contested seven Major finals and four additional semi-finals. Then there had been 17 other tour finals.
Yet in all that history, they had met on grass only three times, completed only two of those matches, and finished only one at Wimbledon. In 2011, Novak won here for the first time, at the expense of defending champion Nadal in four sets, and it took him to No1 for the first time.
It heralded a long period as top dog for the Serb. And Djokovic would also go on to dominate Nadal for almost three years from the end of 2013 through 2016, during which span he would win 11 of their 12 matches. His only loss came, perhaps not surprisingly, at the French Open.
However, both had come through trials as they headed into their 30s.
First it was Nadal, who played a limited season in 2016 after picking up a wrist injury at the French Open. He started last year ranked No9, but then conspired with fellow injury-returner Roger Federer to impose themselves on the entire season. Nadal won six titles, two of them Majors, and 67 matches.
But by the clay swing of that same 2017, Djokovic was struggling with elbow problems, retired in the quarters of Wimbledon, and did not play again until this year. Even then, he was forced to abort his return to have minor surgery, and lost his openers in Indian Wells and Miami. But things began to turn a corner as fitness and confidence returned on the clay, and he took a surge upwards with the arrival of grass.
After making the final at Queen’s, Djokovic had looked increasingly like a serious title contender just in time for Wimbledon.
The scene was set, then, for the two fully fit rivals to play for only the third time since those injury-blighted two years. Nadal had won both of those [clay] matches: It felt as though this semi-final would be different.
They had, after all, come through what was seen as the tougher half, and while neither faced a complete set of seeds on their way to the semis, they had come up against stiff opposition. Djokovic faced two seeds, and dropped one set to each: Kyle Edmund and Kei Nishikori. He had spent a tidy 10 or so hours in the process. Meanwhile, Nadal had only faced one seed, but what a seed. His quarter-final against No5 Juan Martin del Potro was immediately dubbed ‘a classic’, a 4hr48min five-setter that meant Nadal came to his semi-final having spent almost three more hours on court.
But there was no reason to doubt the Spaniard’s stamina. He had bypassed any grass-court preparation after his storming run to an 11th Roland Garros title, and had played a much lighter hard-court swing than usual, pulling out of Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami with a hip injury. So by the time he arrived at Wimbledon, he had played 32 matches. By the same stage last year, he had played 49. He was as rested this fortnight as he had ever been.
That aside, it would be hard to over-estimate the mood surrounding the coming together of these two players again. After all, in one sense, they were each other’s worst enemies. Nadal had beaten Djokovic more often at Majors than any other player, nine times; and Djokovic had similarly beaten Nadal more often at Majors than anyone else, four times.
It would also be hard to over-estimate the tension surrounding the match once it got underway, at gone 8pm at night. The first semi-final between Kevin Anderson and John Isner lasted six and a half hours, which ensured Djokovic and Nadal could not finish their match, no matter how fast, in the remaining 45 minutes or so of natural light.
So it began under the roof, and it began at such a pace on Djokovic’s side that there was real hope that the match might be concluded before the 11pm Wimbledon curfew. The No12 seed broke in the seventh game and held for 5-3, serving it out, 6-4, in under 45 minutes and without facing a break point.
He applied immediate pressure on Nadal in the opening games of the second set, too, working a quick break point in the first and deuce in the third. The Spaniard survived, and used that as platform to hit back with a break, 3-1. But Djokovic regrouped with his signature tactical brilliance, mixing things to great effect with a drop, lob and couple of stunning cross-court strikes. He broke back, but a sweat-drenched Nadal was running down drop-shots, hitting the lines, and he broke again. Two holds of serve, fending off two break points, and he had levelled, 6-3.
Then came the oh-so-familiar Djokovic-Nadal no-quarter-given battle for dominance in the third set. There were exhilarating rallies, with both chasing to the net, both retrieving what looked like winning shots, Nadal more than once pulled off a reverse smash, and had his chance to seal the tie-break. But it was Djokovic, serving at 10-9, who dragged one decisive error from Nadal for a two-sets lead, 7-6(9).
With the clock at two minutes past 11, that marked the end of the night’s play but certainly not the end of the match: they would come back at 1pm—under the roof.
There was already almost three hours on the clock, but after the first semi-final set a record for the longest in the tournament’s history, this one would follow its lead to take second place. There was another two hours 20 minutes to go, as they embarked on two more gripping sets, locked at 105 points each.
In the first game, it looked as though Djokovic would steal a march and get this done sooner rather than later. He pressed Nadal through 16 minutes, two break points, four deuces, but the Spaniard held, and that adrenalin rush drove him to a quick break, consolidated with a love hold.
Nadal’s determination to charge the net then got him into trouble in the fifth to hand a break back. No problem: He broke in the eighth, and came back from 0-40 down with five straight points—clutch tennis at its finest—to serve out the set, 6-3.
Now Djokovic was serving first, and that would prove to be a psychological boost as the set extended through long gruelling rallies, long tactical games, 18 of them.
The quality seemed only to get higher, and the spirit of both braver. Nadal continued to try to get to the yet, but unless he timed it well, he was in trouble with the Djokovic defence-turned-attack.
But both served well, particularly when their backs were to the wall. The fourth, fifth, and sixth games were won with aces.
Djokovic worked a break chance in the eighth game, but two bold forehand winners at over 90mph saved Nadal’s serve. Then the shoe was on the other foot: Djokovic faced 15-40, but turned in some clutch serves to hold, 5-4.
Whenever danger threatened, a 0-30 point, each man dug in: They headed past 6-6. Suddenly Djokovic looked very tense, breathing heavily, double faulted for 15-40. Nadal worked a third chance, but the Serb aced for deuce, made his renowned cross forehand winner, and would eventually come through six deuces to hold, 8-7. They had hit 70 winners apiece.
Again Nadal faced down danger to play the most audacious drop shot on match point. Again, he aced to hold, 8-8, but how many times could he continue to resist Djokovic’s line-skimming shots, to right and left?
The answer came on his next serve. Nadal defended for all he was worth, fell, failed to return a wide winner from Djokovic: It was 0-40, three match points. The three-time champion needed only one to reach his fifth final here, and his first Major final in two years, 10-8.
As he left court, he was clearly emotional:
“It’s hard to pick the words. Going through things, with a flashback the last 15 months and everything I’ve been through to get here, one of the longest matches I ever played—I’m just overwhelmed… It is an incredible achievement for me after what I’ve been through.”
He next plays Anderson, who he has beaten in five of their six matches, their last in the fourth round here as Djokovic headed to the 2015 title. It was a five-setter—but then both men have grown used to that in the last few days. Anderson, though, may have little sympathy for his opponent. The South African not only survived over six and a half hours yesterday, he survived four and a quarter in beating top seed Roger Federer, 13-11, in the fifth set on Wednesday.
Only the tough need apply when it comes to winning a Wimbledon title.