Something special about the Rafa-Novak rivalry in Rome

May 12, 2024

At the Foro Italico, as much as on any other court, they’ve tested and inspired and brought out each other’s best.

Something special about the Rafa-Novak rivalry in Rome

In 2007, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played the first of their nine matches in Rome. I was there, ready and waiting, in the press seats when the 20-year-old Spaniard and the 19-year-old Serb walked, a little warily, into the old, wooden, boxy Campo Centrale.

This was a quarterfinal, a round that usually isn’t considered must-see first-person viewing by the media. But the seats in the section were full for this one. Even grizzled veterans like Bud Collins, then 78, were planted in their seats well before the first ball was struck. I had come to Rome that year in part to have a chance to see a rematch of the epic 2006 final between Nadal and Roger Federer. By the spring of ‘07, though, Nadal-Djokovic felt almost as titanic.

Tennis’ future, it seemed, was before us. Nadal had already been hailed as the King of Clay, and for good reason: He was in the latter stages of a men’s-record 81-match win streak on the surface. But Djokovic was, as Rafa would say later, “coming up fast in the rearview mirror.” Two months earlier in Miami, he had beaten Nadal for the first time. Later that summer, he would reach his first major final, at the US Open.

He wasn’t quite ready for Rafa on dirt though. Nadal won 6-2, 6-3, but like so many of their matches that had lopsided scores, those numbers didn’t do justice to the riveting and at times outlandish athleticism and shot-making on display. My most vivid memory of the afternoon was seeing some of those grizzled veteran reporters in front of me spinning around in their seats in disbelief, at a full-stretch get by Djokovic or a hooking forehand winner from Nadal.

“Very, very nice match,” a pleased Rafa said afterward.

As he so often does, he followed that moment of relief with a dose of reality.

“So Djokovic is a very, very good player.”

I talked to both of them in Rome that year, and I was struck by how confident they both were in their status and their futures. Djokovic even said he expected to be “the next No. 1 player.” Did that mean he thought he would get there before Rafa, who was No. 2 behind Federer at the time? Either way, Djokovic’s words were fuel for their budding rivalry, and catnip for the passionate fan camps that had already formed around them.

Somehow, both men, and their rivalry, went on to exceed all of our expectations. They’ve played 59 matches, and split them as evenly as possible, 30 for Djokovic, 29 for Nadal. I knew they were all-timers in 2007, but I don’t think I could have imagined back then that Nadal would win 10 titles in Rome and Djokovic six, and that they would still be competing there in the far-off, futuristic year of 2024. To match that, Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner will still have to be playing at these events in 2041.

But all things, even Rafa-Nole, must come to an end. A 37-year-old Nadal said good-bye to Madrid last week, and he plans to do the same in Rome this week. While Djokovic rolls on as the No. 1 seed, even he has begun to encounter some unexpected, but inevitable, career turbulence at 36.

The Spaniard and the Serb played classic matches all over the world-they had an epic, it seems, in every port. But to me there was something special about their rivalry in Rome. These matches came near the end of the long, tense lead-up to Roland Garros, and they were seen as signs of what might happen in Paris. Along with the drama of the match itself, Rome also offered a feeling of anticipation about bigger things to come. Nadal was the hunted, and Djokovic was the hunter who was gradually closing the gap. The dynamic never lost its fizz.

By the time the two met in Paris, Nadal had typically distanced himself from the pack, including Djokovic. But things were less settled in Rome, and Djokovic was often more competitive. Nadal leads their head-to-head there 6-3, but the results swung back and forth depending on who had the upper hand in their rivalry at the time. Even their straight-set matches in Rome offered plenty of the circus-like athleticism and shot-making that only they could create together.

Certain matches and moments stick out.

In 2009, Nadal and Djokovic played finals in Monte Carlo and Rome, and then topped themselves with a four-hour semifinal in Madrid. But their first set in Rome, which went to a tiebreaker, was a pure, dead-even distillation of their corner-to-corner push-and-pull from the baseline. I can remember the disappointment in Djokovic’s eyes after he lost it. So close, but still so far.

By 2011, Djokovic had caught up. He was in the midst of a 48-match win streak, and had just beaten Rafa in Madrid, silencing the Spanish crowd. Many expected Rafa to turn things back around in Rome, but Djokovic was simply too good. His 6-4, 6-4 win was as clinical as they come. Would he have beaten Rafa in Paris if Federer hadn’t snapped his streak in the semifinals? It’s still an interesting question.

In 2014, Djokovic played another superb match and won another Rome final over Nadal. This time he took Rafa’s best punch in the first set, and elevated his attack to win the last two, 6-3, 6-3. Again, though, Nadal got the better of him a few weeks later in a four-set Roland Garros final.

In 2016, Djokovic was riding high, on his way to the Djoker Slam, while Nadal was fighting to come out of a slump that had lasted for more than a year, and even infected his clay-court game. With Rafa seeded just fifth, they met in the quarterfinals, but the match they played was among their most thrillingly fought. For me, Djokovic’s 7-5, 7-6 (4) win ranks in the Top 5 of their 59 meetings. Nadal did everything he knew how to do to win on clay, and Djokovic had the response every time.

Afterward, an upbeat Nadal called it a “beautiful match,” and said that he felt “lucky and unlucky at the same time” to play in the same era as Djokovic. He had lost, but Djokovic had pushed him to find something close to his highest level. In 2017, Rafa would finish No. 1 in the world. For years, Nadal had pushed Djokovic to get better in Rome. Now Djokovic had returned the favor.

Nadal and Djokovic’s most recent, and most likely final, meeting in Rome came in 2021. Nadal won in another entertaining three-setter that lasted nearly three hours. On his way to the title match, Djokovic had beaten four opponents who were at least 10 years his junior-members of what the ATP was billing as the “Next Gen.” In his speech after the final, Djokovic flashed a smile at Nadal, and said, “Clearly, Roger, Rafa, and I have reinvented the Next Gen. WE ARE THE NEXT GEN!”

It was hard to argue with him. Nearly two decades after they had first faced off in Rome, and made those writers spin in their seats, Rafa and Nole were still the gold standard of men’s tennis.

At the Foro Italico, as much as on any other court, they’ve pushed and tested and inspired each other. In their matches in the Eternal City, they’ve produced eternal tennis-like no one else has before, and like no one else will again. –

Something special about the Rafa-Novak rivalry in Rome