Photos: Rafael Nadal v Novak Djokovic - The greatest rivalry in men's tennis?

Hannah Wilks in Features 19 May 2018
  • Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are about to contest their 51st meeting in the Madrid Masters semi-finals
  • The head-to-head is poised at 26-24, with Nadal winning their last meeting after Djokovic took the previous seven
  • Djokovic vs Nadal is scheduled live from Rome on Saturday at 3.00pm local time (2:00pm BST).
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, two of the greatest players in men's tennis (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are two legends of tennis, and the pair will clash in a landmark 51st career meeting in the semi-finals of the Rome Masters on Saturday. Nadal won their last meeting in Madrid 2017, but Djokovic had won their seven showdowns prior to that, including the four on clay. Nadal has once again been dominant on clay while Djokovic is still trying to rediscover his best form after an alarming slump and injury problems. Who emerges triumphant at the Foro Italico? 

Djokovic vs Nadal Internazionali BNL d'Italia  tennis is live from Rome on Saturday at 3.00pm local time (2.00pm BST). Watch & bet on tennis live from Madrid at bet365 > sports > live streaming tennis (geo-restrictions apply; funded account required or to have placed a bet in the last 24 hours to qualify)
Nadal and Djokovic have played 43 times, more than any other players in the Open Era, breaking the record previously set by Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe. Both are multiple Grand Slam champions and have been ranked no. 1, although Djokovic currently holds that honour, taking over Nadal's no. 1 ranking after he won his second Wimbledon title in 2014. 

Any battle between these two involves the highest stakes as two of the greatest players men's tennis have ever known face off for historical and current dominance.
The rivalry did not get off to an auspicious start as Djokovic, then ranked 63 in the world, had to retire after two sets against Nadal at Roland Garros. Nadal would also win their second career meeting, in the final of Indian Wells in 2007. 'This is one of the best wins for me,' said Nadal, who won 6-2, 7-5 in one hour and 34 minutes. 'It is a strange feeling to come here and win without losing a set. I won against a great player.'

Djokovic would, however, crack the top ten for the first time as the result of reaching the final.
The one-sidedness of the rivalry did not last long, however, as Djokovic would defeat Nadal 6-3, 6-4 in the quarterfinals of Miami in 2007. 

'I have to say that this is the biggest, and probably the most important victory in my career, and he's the best player I ever won against,' Djokovic said afterwards. 'Coming from Indian Wells finals, I learned a lot of things... Today I was really motivated. I didn't have anything to lose. I'm making some unbelievable results in the last couple of months. I'm in great shape, feeling really confident on the court.'
The Championships - Wimbledon 2007 Day Twelve

Nadal and Djokovic leave the court after Djokovic retires at Wimbledon 2007  (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Nadal would go on to win their next three meetings - all on natural surfaces - on clay at the Rome Masters, in the semifinals of Roland Garros and the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2007, where Djokovic retired due to a left-toe injury after winning the first set but trailing 1-6, 1-4 subsequently.
Rafael Nadal of Spain returns a shot to

Nadal in action against Djokovic in the semifinals of Indian Wells, 2008 (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

The hard-court meetings between the two continued to be much more even, Djokovic winning two out of the next three including a 6-3, 6-2 victory in the Indian Wells semifinal in 2008.

'I had very tough matches in the rounds before, very tight matches,' Nadal said. 'You have to be 100%. [Djokovic] played, for sure, less hours on the court than me, easier matches.'
Nadal continued to own Djokovic on natural surfaces, however, winning on clay in Hamburg and at Roland Garros and on grass at Queen's. He also inflicted a painful defeat upon Djokovic at the 2008 Beijing Olympics on hard courts, coming back from a 1-6 first set to win in three and going on to claim the gold.
Rafael Nadal of Spain falls to the court

Nadal celebrates after winning the 2010 US Open final against Djokovic (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Nadal had the best of the rivalry in nine meetings in 2009-10, leading 6-3 including a victory in the final of the US Open in 2010.

At that point, he led the head-to-head 16-7, but things were about to change ...
... Because the best season of Novak Djokovic's life was about to begin. When Nadal and Djokovic met for the first time in 2011, Djokovic had captured the Australian Open title and was on a 19-match winning streak, ticking over to 20 as Djokovic defeated Nadal in the final of Indian Wells. 

They would meet again in Miami, Djokovic winning in a third-set tiebreak to become the first man since Roger Federer to complete the Indian Wells-Miami double.
Serbian player Novak Djokovic (L) holds

Djokovic lifts the Wimbledon trophy as Nadal applauds (GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

Djokovic would also upset Nadal's dominance over him on natural surfaces, beating the Spaniard in straight sets in Rome and Madrid before a 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory in the Wimbledon final.
Novak Djokovic of Serbia (R) and Rafael

The marathon 2012 Australian Open final between Nadal and Djokovic left both men barely able to stand (PAUL CROCK/AFP/Getty Images)

Djokovic would go on to beat Nadal in the US Open final - becoming the sixth man in the Open Era to win three Grand Slams in the same year - and extended his winning streak to seven against Nadal in a stunning marathon of an Australian Open final in 2012, fighting back from 2-4 down in the fifth set to win 57 64 62 67(5) 75 that left both men struggling to stand during the trophy ceremony.
2012 French Open - Day Sixteen

Djokovic and Nadal with their trophies after the 2012 Roland Garros final  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The rest of 2012 would belong to Nadal, however, as he snapped his seven-match losing streak to Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final with a convincing straight-sets victory and winning in the finals of Rome and Roland Garros as well. 
After Djokovic struck back at the Monte Carlo Masters, Nadal would win a five-set encounter in the semifinals of Roland Garros in 2013, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7.

Djokovic broke to lead 4-3 in the fifth set and might have made it 5-3 - putting himself in a great position to win the net - had he not carelessly touched the net when playing a volley. 

Nadal and Djokovic during the trophy ceremony at the US Open in 2013        (TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

The remainder of 2013 would see four hard-court meetings between Nadal and Djokovic. Nadal won in Toronto and the US Open final ...
... Djokovic struck back with straight-sets victories, each with a 6-3, 6-4 scoreline, in Beijing and at the ATP World Tour Finals. He then added to this with a dominant 6-3, 6-3 triumph in the final of the Sony Open in Miami.
The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2014 - Day Eight

Nadal and Djokovic after the latter's victory in the final of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

A few weeks later, Djokovic claimed a fourth straight victory against Nadal - this time on clay, Nadal's best surface, in the final of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia.

Nadal won the first set but had no answers when Djokovic stepped up his game, and the Serb won 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.

'Winning against Rafa in the final of a big tournament on clay, his preferred surface, is definitely a confidence booster,' said Djokovic.

'I felt that Novak was pushing me and has a great talent to play inside the lines,' Nadal commented.
2014 French Open - Day Thirteen

Nadal in action at Roland Garros  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Djokovic and Nadal's 41st meeting came in the final of the 2014 French Open. Nadal was chasing down an unbelievable ninth French Open title while Djokovic was looking for the only Grand Slam title to elude him.

Dethroning the King of Clay, with his 65-1 record at Roland Garros, was a mammoth task and Djokovic wasn't quite up to it despite Nadal's struggles (when judged by his own high standards) during the 2014 clay-court season. Nadal won 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 to retain the world no. 1 ranking.
2014 French Open - Day Fifteen

Djokovic bows his head during the 2014 French Open final  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

For the second year in a row, Djokovic double-faulted to lose the match against Nadal at the French Open. 'That trophy is out of reach this year but I will come back again, and again, and again and again until I win it,' the Serb said.

'Playing against Novak is always a big challenge for me,' Nadal said. 'Every time I beat him, I have to play to my limit. Today tennis give me back what happened in Australia.'


Djokovic congratulates Nadal during the trophy ceremony (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite Nadal's fantastic French Open achievement, the pendulum quickly swung back in Djokovic's direction. With Nadal exiting Wimbledon in the fourth round at the hands of wildcard Nick Kyrgios while Djokovic went on to win it, the Serb took back the world no. 1 ranking and Nadal had slipped to no. 3 behind Djokovic and Roger Federer by the end of what was ultimately an injury-hit and frustrating year for the Spanish player.
ATP Masters Series: Monte Carlo Rolex Masters - Day Six

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Episode 43 saw Djokovic and Nadal clash once more in clay, for the first time since his French Open loss, and it was the Serbian who regained the upper hand in their epic rivalry, beating Nadal in straight sets, 6-3 6-3, and then getting the better of Tomas Berdych in a three-set final.

This was the start of what is currently an unprecedented stretch of dominance for Djokovic in his decade-long rivalry against Nadal. Djokovic went on to ruthlessly pick apart Nadal 7-5 6-3 6-1 in the 2015 French Open quarter-finals and avenge his four-set loss from the previous year, while his superior form would then extend into the hardcourt season of late 2015 and early 2016.

Spain's Rafael Nadal (R) shakes hands with Serbia's Novak Djokovic at the end of their men's quarter final match of Roland Garros 2015 (Photo by PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)

Djokovic demolished Nadal for the loss of just four games in the 2015 Beijing final before registering another comfortable victory in the semi-finals of the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals, ending the season as the runaway World No. 1.

Refusing to take his foot of the pedal in the slightest, Djokovic and Nadal would do battle again immediately to kick off the 2016 season, with the two superstars meeting in the Doha final. However this would prove to be another one-sided affair, with Djokovic claiming the title by an emphatic 6-1 6-2 scoreline before going on to secure a record-equalling sixth Australian Open title later in January.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia (L) poses for a photo with his winning trophy next to Rafael Nadal of Spain holding his second place trophy following the final of the Qatar Open tennis tournament on January 9, 2016, in Doha. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Nadal would get another opportunity for revenge in the Indian Wells semi-finals just a couple of months later, but while the Spaniard was at least able to make a contest of the opening set, he just couldn’t find away past Djokovic’s impenetrable defences, with the World No. 1 again emerging triumphant, 7-6(5) 6-2 before going to win the title and Miami later in the month, securing another ‘Sunshine Double’.

Djokovic and Nadal clashed for the 49th time on the clay of Rome later in 2016, and again Nadal made some progress in that both sets went down to the wire, but Djokovic won the psychological war yet again, winning the points that mattered most in a 7-5 7-6(4) quarter-final triumph. Djokovic would go on to fall to Andy Murray in the final, but he regrouped incredibly to win his first ever French Open title and complete his career grand slam.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates his victory over Spain's Rafael Nadal in Rome (Photo by TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

However Djokovic suffered a dramatic slide after that Roland Garros triumph, admitting to having lost some motivation at stages after the conquest. The Serbian won just one more title in 2016, and lost his No. 1 ranking to Andy Murray at the end of the year. 

Despite winning his first tournament in 2017 in Doha, Djokovic was clearly not operating anywhere near his best level, a problem epitomised by a second round loss to Denis Istomin at the Australian Open. Hence, Nadal had a great shot at snapping his seven-match losing streak to Djokovic when they were reunited for a 50th time in Madrid later that year. By then, Djokovic had parted ways with his entire coaching staff in a desperate search for solutions, while Nadal was cleaning up everything on clay. True to form, Nadal eased past Djokovic 6-2 6-4.

Rafael Nadal beat Djokovic in Madrid. (Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 12: Rafael Nadal celebrates after reaching the Madrid semi-finals (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Nadal went on to win a fifth Madrid title, and subsequently a tenth Roland Garros title, or La Decima, if you like! He didn't stop there, as he also won the US Open, and finished an outstanding comeback season as World No. 1. Djokovic meanwhile, continued to struggle until he brought down the curtains on his season after retiring from his quarter final meeting with Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon.

The Serbian would not be seen again until the 2018 Australian Open, but he still did not look right as he fell to Hyeon Chung in the fourth round. Djokovic underwent minor surgery on his troublesome elbow after Melbourne, but continued to struggle on his return to the tour at Indian Wells, where he was beaten by Taro Daniel in the opening round. Djokovic suffered three opening round exits in five tournaments after his return from the 'minor intervention', but with no apparent end in sight to his slump, the beast was reawaken in Rome, where the 120-time Grand Slam champion has looked very close to his best.

But now, he faces the ultimate test in the sport in Rafael Nadal.

It's been business as usual for Nadal on clay- eleventh titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, a customary odd defeat in Madrid, and now a quest for a record-breaking eighth title in Rome.

Nadal beat Fabio Fognini to reach the Rome semi-finals. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)

Djokovic played his best tennis of the season in taking down Kei Nishikori in the rome quarter finals. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Djokovic clearly has the game to beat Nadal- and he has played at a very high level in Rome this week, can he possibly take down the King of Clay and properly shake up the Roland Garros conversations?

Don’t miss any of the action as Nadal and Djokovic collide for the 51st time in the semi-finals of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome.

Watch and bet on the match at bet365 > sports > live streaming tennis > Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal (geo-restrictions apply; funded account required or to have placed a bet in the last 24 hours to qualify)

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Photos: Rafael Nadal v Novak Djokovic - The greatest rivalry in men's tennis?

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