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

Live Tennis Staff in ATP Tour 19 May 2019
  • Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are about to contest their 54th meeting in the Rome Masters final
  • The head-to-head is poised at 28-25 in favour of Djokovic - but Nadal has won their last two meetings on clay
  • Djokovic vs Nadal is scheduled live from Rome on Sunday at 4.00pm local time (3.00pm BST)
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are two legends of tennis, and the pair will clash in a landmark 54th career showdown in the Rome Masters final on Sunday. Djokovic won their last meeting in the Australian Open final earlier this season, and has won nine of their last 11 encounters, but Nadal has taken their last two meetings on clay.Wimbledon final. Can the Spaniard rebound to claim a first title of 2019 in Rome, or will Djokovic secure back-to-back Masters Series titles after capturing the Madrid silverware last week?

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Nadal and Djokovic have played 53 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. 

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.'

(Photo by HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
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.'

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.

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.

(Photo by Clive Brunskill/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.

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.

(Photo by GLYN KIRK/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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

(Photo by DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/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.'

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.

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.

(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.

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.

Djokovic completes the career slam at the 2016 French Open (Photo by Julian Finney/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.

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 reawoken in Rome, where the 12-time Grand Slam champion played his best tennis of 2018 - but it still wasn’t enough to take down Nadal as the Spaniard prevailed 7-6(4) 6-3.

Nadal went on to create more tennis history as he swept the field for his 11th Roland Garros soon after, but Djokovic - who made the quarter-finals in Paris - had been improving with every tournament, and following a runner-up finish at Queen’s Club, the Serbian outlasted Nadal in a Wimbledon classic, winning their semi-final duel 6-4 3-6 7-6 (11-9) 3-6 10-8 in five hours and 16 minutes.

It was a classic for the ages as Djokovic lead two sets to one before play was abandoned at 11.02pm on Friday night. When play resumed, Nadal broke twice to force a fifth set, but the Serbian wasn’t to be denied in their 52nd encounter, taking a dramatic fifth set before beating Kevin Anderson in the final to secure his 13th Grand Slam title.

Djokovic would go on to capture Grand Slam No. 14 at the U.S. Open and finish the year as No. 1 in what was an extraordinary resurgence back to the top of tennis, and he wasn’t done there, crushing Nadal 6-3 6-2 6-2 in the 2019 Australian Open to take home his 15th major title and continue his irresistable run of form. The Serbian experienced a quiet couple of months after prevailing in Melbourne, but Djokovic is back to his best after winning the Madrid Masters last week, equalling Nadal’s tally of 34 titles. Who will claim a record 35th Masters crown when the pair clash in the Rome final on Sunday?

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