Continuing our Season In Review series, ATPWorldTour.com looks at the two best Grand Slam matches of the 2018 season.
2. Novak Djokovic def. Rafael Nadal, Wimbledon, Semi-finals – 14 July 2018 (Match Stats)
There are epic matches, and then there are epic moments; clashes during which you lose track of the score and are simply mesmerised by sensational tennis. Classic rallies feel like they will never end — to nobody’s dismay — and fans’ roars build up between points until they’re unleashed after a tremendous shot.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal’s Wimbledon semi-final felt like one of those moments, one that will play centre stage in books about the sport for years to come. Neither player was going to be left unscathed, leaving it all out on the court, no matter what it took. And after a titanic five hours and 15 minutes in the pair’s record 52nd FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting, Djokovic beat Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(9), 3-6, 10-8 to reach his 22nd major final.
“If I show you my feet, you would understand,” Djokovic said of the toll an epic against Nadal could take. “He’s probably the greatest fighter ever to play this game. I mean, he battles every single point like it’s his last… That’s why you put in ‘X’ amount of hours on the practice court, preparation, trying to be as professional as you can, because you need to compete with a guy like Nadal. He does the same.”
There was a lot on the line for both players. Nadal, the No. 1 player in the ATP Rankings at the time, was trying to reach his first final at SW19 in seven years. Then there was Djokovic, who was seeking a breakthrough against one of his greatest rivals.
While the Serbian had won the tournament three times, he arrived in London as the World No. 21 after struggling due to a right wrist injury. Djokovic reached the quarter-finals at Roland Garros and had match point to win the Fever-Tree Championships, but the former World No. 1 was missing an ‘I’m back’ win. This was an opportunity to not only make a statement to the field, but reaffirm his belief in himself.
Part of the drama stemmed from the day’s first semi-final, as Kevin Anderson beat John Isner 26-24 in a fifth set, pushing back Djokovic and Nadal’s start time so that they had to break after the third set for the evening due to curfew.
And after the fifth set went past 6-6, the match appeared to be a sheer battle of wills. Nadal consistently attacked Djokovic’s forehand, but the 31-year-old’s neutralising and at times offensive defence consistently bent without breaking. These two warriors didn’t limp to the finish line, either. At 4-3, deuce in the decider, Djokovic raced to the net for a drop shot, soared straight into the air for a high backhand volley, and Nadal still managed to cut off the Serbian’s sharp angle with a rifled forehand winner right over the net post, from outside the court.
It felt like tennis’ version of, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” After staving off a strong push from Nadal at 7-7, Djokovic found his first match point at 8-7. But even then, there was no end in sight, as he couldn’t quite retrieve a masterful drop shot carved by Nadal.
“It was one of those moments where I think time stopped for me. Match point, I saw him coming in, I played a relatively solid shot. It was a moment of decision-making for him, knowing whether he was going to go for a drop shot or just smack the backhand. When I saw him changing the grip, I started running,” Djokovic said. “But the drop shot was just too good. I was too far away. But I did try to, like in ‘Space Jam,’ with Michael Jordan, when he was trying to stretch, that’s probably something that comes to my mind to describe it.”
Eventually, Nadal could not hold off any longer, as at 0/40 while serving at 8-9, the Spaniard hooked a cross-court forehand a couple of feet wide, and all Djokovic could do was look at his box and smile after taking a 27-25 lead in his series against the Spaniard.
“Normally I am very critical with myself,” Nadal said. “I hit great shots. I played aggressive. I missed balls, not too many, but I missed some ones. When you play with that intensity, with that level of risk, that level of passion, sometimes you go over. [I have] nothing to complain [about]. I think I played a great match. I have not much more inside me. I gave it my best, and that’s it.”
1. Rafael Nadal def. Dominic Thiem, US Open, Quarter-finals – 4 September 2018 (Match Stats)
Rafael Nadal’s victory against Juan Martin del Potro in this year’s Wimbledon quarter-finals was an all-time classic between two of the titans of the sport. Yet, however high of a moment that was for him, losing in the semi-finals against Djokovic was equally as devastating.
But just two months later, Nadal found himself in yet another tussle to remember. Dominic Thiem gave the top-seeded Spaniard everything he had during his first trip to the last eight at Flushing Meadows. But Nadal summoned his best tennis to outlast the Austrian 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7(4), 7-6(5) in four hours and 49 minutes.
That first-set scoreline is not a typo. Nadal won just seven points in the opening set. Seven points for Rafael Nadal in an entire set! And while the Spaniard was not at full throttle, a lot of credit has to go to Thiem for coming out swinging.
One of the biggest hitters on the ATP World Tour began the match as if he were the Hulk wielding Thor’s hammer as a racquet, completely controlling play. Thiem hit 13 winners to just two unforced errors straight out of the gate. His 6-0 romp over Nadal in the opener was the first bagel-set the Spaniard had lost at the US Open since losing to Andy Roddick in straight sets 14 years ago.
“[It was] very demanding in all aspects. [It was] a very tough start for me,” Nadal said. “After that first set, then the match became more normal. Tough match against a great opponent.”
In a way, the tennis became like a boxing match with two athletes trading jabs and sporadic uppercuts while remaining in the pocket the entire time. There are players who might be able to attack Nadal for two sets, or sometimes even three. But it’s rare that the left-hander has found an opponent who could match his physical output on the court for a five-set marathon.
It was Thiem’s first match to last more than four hours, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell. The Austrian kept taking massive cuts at the ball, ultimately leading to 74 winners. And he was not shy about stepping up when it counted, saving 12 break points in the match.
As the clock approached 2 am local time, both players had fans rising to their feet point after point as if they were members of each athlete’s box. It was fitting the pair went to a deciding tie-break, but Thiem launched an overhead long off of a scrambled lob by Nadal to end the affair at 2:04 am.
“I played against a great opponent. He played a good match. Sorry for him. He’s a top guy, being honest. He’s one of the best guys on Tour,” Nadal said. “I’m sad for him because when we arrived at this moment, he did all the things well to win the match. Me, too, I think. I fought until the end. [It] was a question of a little bit of luck at the end, and it was for me.”
Thiem was so close to one of the biggest wins of his career in the best Grand Slam match of the season. But the Austrian was sent packing.
“It’s cruel sometimes, tennis, because I think this match didn’t really deserve a loser. But there has to be one. And I would say if we skip the first set, it was a really open match from the beginning to the end,” Thiem said. “The way it ended up in the fifth set tie-break, there it’s 50/50. He made one more point than me.”
Nadal, the only player to advance to the quarter-finals at all four Grand Slams in 2018, actually won five fewer points than Thiem. But the last one was what counted, and Nadal advanced.
“It’s going to be stuck in my mind forever,” Thiem said. “Forever I’m going to remember this match.”
Thiem is not alone there.