When Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are at their best, their opponents can usually do little about it. But for their blockbuster Roland Garros semi-final on Friday, former number 4 in the world Brad Gilbert said that may not be the case when they meet at Court Philippe-Chatrier.
“It’s a game of chance. If you play your best you might not win. It’s the ultimate test,” Gilbert told ATPTour.com. “Normally it’s good enough if they play their best. But one of them may be at his best and it may not be good enough if the other guy is at his best. Of course there is also history at stake and all those different things.”
This will be the record-lengthing 58th ATP Head2Head meeting between the all-time greats. These two weeks, Nadal, who is 105-2 at this tournament, is aiming for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam championship. Djokovic goes for his 19th major trophy and aims to become the first player to beat the Spaniard twice at Roland Garros.
“The greatness of Rafa is that he only thinks about executing. Everyone thinks of 21 [Grand Slams], all possible possibilities. He says no and I believe him,” Gilbert said. “I think Djoker probably thinks more about history than Rafa. It can be distracting. But he kind of reminds me of Metallica’s song, Fuel. I think it fuels his fire.”
Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal” />
Nadal has won seven of the pair’s eight duels at Roland Garros, and five in a row on clay. Before that, from 2013 Beijing to 2016 Rome, Djokovic won 11 out of 12 matches against the lefty. Those shifts in the tide are the result of micro-adjustments in game plans.
During Friday’s first few games, Gilbert will watch Nadal hit high, heavy balls deep into the field with his backhand. The former coach of André Agassi and Andy Roddick believes that this has been a key role in Nadal’s last two victories against Djokovic, who last year Roland Garros final and this year’s championship game in Rome.
“Rafa tried not to be so aggressive. He mixed those high loop balls and maybe got something more appealing on the next ball. He’s done a great job mixing those high loop balls over the past few games,” Gilbert said. “I think Djoker expects that Friday and maybe he has something ready for that.
“When a guy runs a high ball, if you don’t take it exactly early, back it up, it’s a tough ball. If Rafa doesn’t execute it and he hits it high and he doesn’t get any length on it, Djoker can jump on it. Everything about a looping ball has to be done right. You have to get height, but then you have to get depth.”
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Gilbert put on Djokovic’s coach’s hat, Marian Vajda, to think what Djokovic might do when Nadal throws those looping balls at him again.
“If it’s a hot and fast day, you may need to be a little more patient with that. Maybe you should just wait and not take the ball so early,” Gilbert said. “Or maybe you take a couple up into the air with swinging volleys.”
In last year Roland Garros final, Djokovic hit 28 drop shots – 25 from his backhand wing – and won less than 50 percent of those points. Gilbert didn’t mind the Serb trying to change things, though.
“What would happen if he suddenly won 10 or 12 and that scared Rafa? He might not have seen that coming with the drop shot and it could have been genius,” Gilbert said. “Maybe he thought that it might work to get into the match. That’s why I think they both look a bit like a rubix cube. It won’t just be, ‘I’m going left and you’re going right.’”
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Twenty-time ATP Tour titlist Gilbert believes Djokovic has the most success against Nadal when he attacks the Spaniard’s forehand hard from the first ball.
“Whether that’s a backhand crosscourt or a forehand inside-out, it’s when he takes the rally hard and fast to the forehand with the first ball and then takes control of the rally,” Gilbert said. “When Rafa is much more deadly is when he takes a step or two around on the backhand side of the court and hits forehands and dictates the game.
“Where Djokovic is more successful is making Rafa pay in the forehand corner. Djoker will play more offensively than he normally does.”
According to Gilbert, Friday’s clash will not come down to previous matches and records, but to who is able to perform on the day, find the best level and adjust where necessary.
“The great thing about them is that their games have both evolved. They do different things than 15 years ago. They’re more versatile players as they get older, so there are still adjustments to be made,” said Gilbert. “It’s amazing they’ve played this so many times, but they’re still making minor adjustments and adjustments to compete against each other for success. I think that’s also the brilliance of the rivalry.”