The match we have all been waiting for will take place in the Magic Box at the Mutua Madrid Open, as the nine-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal takes on the current and reigning champion Novak Djokovic in an Open Era-record 50th meeting in this major rivalry. It really could not be set up any better and this match-up has come at the perfect time in the lead-up to the second Grand Slam of the year.
This match-up over the years has had its momentum shifts. One player has expressed their dominance over the other at different stages of their career, but it cannot be overlooked at the overwhelming and emphatic command that the World No. 2 Djokovic has inflicted on one of his biggest rivals in recent memory. Djokovic has won seven of their matches in a row, which dates back to the French Open in 2014, where Nadal was able to get his last victory over Djokovic. Since then, we have seen Djokovic take his game to unspeakable heights with unrivaled success and consistency at the top level of the sport, while Nadal has struggled to find confidence in his game and consistency in his results until this special 2017 season for the Spaniard.
Now in 2017 we have seen the roles reversed. Djokovic has since split with his long-time coach, Marian Vajda, his fitness coach, Phil Gritsch and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic, while Nadal has found a certain stability and calmness in his coaching set up with newly-appointed coach Carlos Moya at the helm. There is much more uncertainty, questions and doubt surrounding Djokovic, which was unheard of in the previous years–this ultimately puts the importance of this match to another level in my eyes.
Djokovic may have won all of the last seven meetings and 11 of the last 12, but Nadal is one of the form players of the season. He made the Australian Open final, losing to Roger Federer in five sets in that final and he has reeled off 13 match wins–all on the red clay–in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and now making the semifinals at altitude in Madrid. Nadal is a winning machine right now and the confidence is flowing, but the question still remains as to whether he can convey that confidence in a totally different setting, against a totally different opponent, a greater opponent, one of the greatest opponents–Novak Djokovic.
Nadal has the confidence running, but does the psychological aspect of this match play a huge part in determining who wins? And does it have a great influence on whether Nadal can win his tenth Roland Garros? The mental side of this rivalry favours Djokovic without a doubt. Nadal may be in a great frame of mind, but you cannot overlook and ignore psychological advantage in one of the great mental rivalries of our time in this sport and Djokovic over the years has possessed a great mental edge over near-enough every opponent.
The problem in this match-up for Nadal is that he loves the forehand cross-court patterns of play, which we have seen often when he plays Roger Federer and he has had a lot of success from that play. When Nadal plays that comfortable, usually risk-free shot against Djokovic, he actually plays into the Serb’s strength. So for Nadal it really is about making the most of his renewed confidence and taking the risks of playing high-risk tennis and going for the down-the-line forehand as much as possible. It is high-risk tennis, but these matches are determined with small margins, so leaving it all out there really is the minimum requirement in such a tough battle.
Determining this match-up from recent and previous match-ups, you would have to give the edge to Djokovic, but I feel Nadal’s accumulation of wins mean much more than people think. I think there would have been a lot of anxiety about how his game would translate back to the clay as his expectations increase enormously and understandably when he gets back on his beloved surface. Now he has those 13 match wins on this surface he feels back at home and is in a fantastic position to get his biggest win in quite some time. He would then salvage the mental edge going into Roland Garros and this would solidify his position as the favorite for the second Grand Slam of the year.