Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal had played 51 times over a dozen years, but only twice had they gone to a fifth set. Djokovic won 7-5 in the fifth at the 2002 Australian Open, and Nadal returned the favor, 9-7 in the fifth, the following spring at the French Open.
It took half a decade, but the Serb and the Spaniard finally brought their high-wire act, and their finest tennis, to Centre Court at Wimbledon.
We might call Djokovic’s 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9), 3-6, 10-8 win their Third Epic. As far as level of play and entertainment value per point, this one was likely the best of all. The degree of difficulty was also the highest, as Nadal and Djokovic had to wait six hours for Kevin Anderson to beat John Isner in the first semifinal on Friday; they had to play with a curfew encroaching on Friday night; and they had to come back out and rev it up again 14 hours later on Saturday.
If anything, those unusual circumstances only helped. Normally, neither Nadal nor Djokovic hurry from one point to the next, or rush the rallies to their conclusion. But with a deadline approaching, they took less time before serving, and when the points began, they forced the issue at the first opportunity. Rather than the lengthy, attritional rallies with saw between them in Melbourne and Paris, these rallies were decided by proactive play. In a measure of how little there was between them, Djokovic both finished with 73 winners and 42 errors; they broke each four times each; and they came to net 50 (for Nadal) and 44 (for Djokovic) times. How often does Rafa find himself up there on 50 occasions in a single match?
Once again, Nadal and Djokovic brought out the best in each other, and reminded us that, when you put them on the same court, they’re still the greatest show in tennis. But part of what makes them such a compelling show for longtime tennis watchers is that Rafa and Nole also bring out the anxiety in each other like no other opponents can.
That’s because of their uniquely long, and uniquely competitive, history; no two men have faced off as often in the Open era, yet despite their 52 meetings, neither has asserted his superiority over the other—coming into this match, Djokovic led 26-25. You could feel that history weigh on both men in this semifinal, but in the crucial moments, you could feel it weighing a little more heavily on Nadal.
That may have been because of the surface—not the surface they were playing on, but the one they weren’t playing on. While Nadal led Djokovic 2-1 on grass coming in, Djokovic led on all surfaces other than clay, 19-9. Djokovic’s flatter strokes, bigger serve and better backhand will always give him a natural advantage on faster surfaces, and that was true again on Friday and Saturday. Nadal had to play slightly more aggressively and live a little closer to the edge than he would like, while Djokovic always seemed to be in his comfort zone.
That made the difference in the match’s two decisive moments, the third-set tiebreaker and the overtime fifth set. In both cases, it was Nadal who, at first glance, was playing the flashier, riskier, better tennis. He hit forehand drop-shot winners, short-hop groundstroke winners and powerfully confident smash winners. He even saved a match point with a drop shot that landed right on the sideline. In both cases, it looked as if Nadal was destined to get over the hump—he was the No. 1 player in the world, he had won three majors in the last 13 months, and he had beaten Djokovic in their last two meetings. Rafa had three set points in the third-set tiebreaker, and five break points in the fifth set.
Yet Djokovic still won. He won with at least one spectacular shot, a crosscourt forehand pass to save break point at 7-7. But he also won with simple, solid play, like the service winners he sent to Nadal’s forehand side when he was down set point in the third-set tiebreaker, and when he was down break point at 4-4 in the fifth. While Nadal had a mental edge because of their recent history, Djokovic had a mental edge because of their longer history on non-clay surfaces.
“I have not much more inside me,” Nadal said afterward. “I give it my best.”
After his 2012 Australian Open loss to Djokovic, and his 2013 French Open win over him, Nadal said, essentially, that destiny had given one match to Nole, and one to him. He said much the same thing today—destiny had given him his five-set win over Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals, but had given today’s five-setter to his opponent. That opponent concurred.
“Very few things separated us,” a dazed Djokovic said in the moments afterward. “Not till the last shot did I know I was going to win.”
Circus shotmaking, a long rivalry, a thriller on Centre Court that took five sets and five hours to decide: The greatest show in tennis isn’t over yet.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.
WATCH: NOW AVAILABLE AT THE ITUNES STORE