Beating Matteo Berrettini was one thing. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic knows that ousting 13-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal on Friday in the semi-finals will be an entirely different monster.
“It’s not like any other match. Let’s face it, it’s the biggest challenge that you can have: playing on clay against Nadal, on this court on which he has had so much success in his career, in the final stages of a Grand Slam. It doesn’t get bigger than that,” Djokovic said. “Of course, each time we face each other, there’s that extra tension and expectations. [The] vibes are different walking on the court with him. But that’s why our rivalry has been historic, I think, for this sport. I’ve been privileged to play him so many times.
“[My] rivalries with him and Roger [Federer] have made me a stronger player, allowed me to understand how I need to improve my game to get to the level where they were when I started playing professional tennis. I’ll probably pick Rafa as the biggest rival I’ve ever had in my career.
“The anticipation for the match against him — any match, any surface, any occasion — is always different from any other.”
Djokovic and Nadal have clashed a record 57 times in their legendary ATP Head2Head rivalry. Although the Serbian leads their series 29-28, he is 1-7 against the Spaniard at Roland Garros. That doesn’t scare the top seed, though.
“The quality and the level of tennis that I’ve been playing in the past three, four weeks on clay — [in] Rome, Belgrade and here — is giving me good sensations and feelings ahead of that match,” Djokovic said. “I’m confident. I believe I can win, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Let’s have a great battle.”
Djokovic is certainly locked into battle mode in Paris. The 2016 titlist fought hard to eliminate Berrettini in four sets. After clinching his victory, Djokovic let out a cathartic roar.
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 9, 2021
“This match had it all: falls, a crowd, a break. It was a lot of intensity. I just felt under tension the entire time,” Djokovic said. “I felt like I missed some of the chances to end the match in the third set. I didn’t want to give him too many opportunities to dictate the match. That’s why it was just super, super stressful to constantly be under pressure on my service games because his service games were quite smooth with [his] big serve.
“The reaction in the end was just me liberating that tension that was building up for the entire match.”
In their only previous meeting, Djokovic crushed Berrettini 6-2, 6-1 at the 2019 Nitto ATP Finals. The World No. 1 had his hands full in Paris though, needing three hours and 24 minutes to advance.
“The crowd lifted him up. He was playing some really powerful tennis. Especially in the third and fourth, he served tremendously [hard] and precisely. It was just very difficult to read his serve and play someone like him,” Djokovic said. “He’s very talented. He can play well from the back of the court. He’s got a lethal forehand, drop shots… When he’s on, it’s tough to play him.”
The challenge will only get tougher against Nadal.