Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal maintain one of the greatest ongoing rivalries in sports. It began with a 2006 French Open quarterfinals clash that ended in Djokovic retiring due to an shoulder injury. Since then, the two regularly go head-to-head in the late stages of the biggest tennis tournaments.
At the 2011 U.S. Open, Djokovic made the strongest statement of his career up to that point. His incredible run toward a rematch with Nadal required pushing past Roger Federer, one of the greatest tennis players of our time. Djokovic ultimately came out on top. The journey to that point was one of the most exciting storylines in modern tennis.
Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer: a battle of wills
Djokovic’s path to victory at the 2011 U.S. Open was not easy. His exhausting match with Federer repeated nearly identical circumstances from their clash 12 months prior. “The Joker” pushed through two match-point situations to come back and take the final game.
Federer was incredulous over suffering another heartbreaking loss to Djokovic. He was particularly haughty about his Serbian rival’s go-for-broke forehand shot that took back the second match point. “To lose against someone like that, it’s very disappointing, because you feel like he was mentally out of it already. Just gets the lucky shot at the end, and off you go,” Federer said.
Djokovic had no problem admitting he was gassed and went with his instincts on the volley. That was his mentality the first time he took out Federer at the U.S. Open. Why mess with success?
Djokovic vs. Nadal: a years-long rivalry comes to a head
The shocking repeat of 2010 looked like the biggest narrative of 2011 at Flushing Meadows that year. That is, until Djokovic and Nadal squared off in an impossibly intense match for the ages.
The match took four grueling sets. Several volleys lasted 30 shots or more. The crowd was notably raucous behind both players, requiring repeated interventions from the chair umpire. Nadal dropped 11 serves, yet he held on for dear life. Djokovic, so often pushing through injuries, looked gassed when he called for time.
After his medical timeout, Djokovic returned with a fury. The match spun wildly in his favor from here on out, finally ending with his victory after a nail-biting four hours and ten minutes of play. Nadal’s U.S. Open crown was passed on to his longtime rival.
Djokovic and Nadal’s continuing respectful rivalry
Djokovic and Nadal continue to confront each other in crucial rounds of tennis majors. Their rivalry fascinates fans, especially because it’s spurred on by respectful banter rather than the nasty trash talk of some players.
Unfortunately, Djokovic retired from the 2019 U.S. Open. He often battles through shoulder injury complications, and this time it was too much to continue. It was an unfortunate turn of events coming off the high of his amazing marathon against Federer to win Wimbledon just weeks before. The crowd booed as Djokovic abandoned his match with Stan Wawrinka.
Of course, it was longtime nemesis Nadal who spoke up in Djokovic’s defense. “He didn’t deserve that,” Nadal told the press after his match with Marin Cilic. “I believe that he’s a super athlete. If he had to go is because he was not able to continue at all.”
He’d know. Djokovic retired from their biggest initial matchup back in 2006. He came back repeatedly, with not just tenacity but the athleticism to defeat Nadal in major moments like the 2011 U.S. Open. The best story in tennis has no ending in sight.