On Tuesday, Rafael Nadal will meet Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. The Spaniard has won 13 titles at this event and lost only three times in 112 matches (Djokovic twice, Robin Soderling). However, this will be just the third time in his French Open history, when the Spaniard, according to the bookmakers, isn’t considered the favorite in his encounter.
The Three Times Nadal was an Underdog at the French Open
Fedal semifinal in 2005
Seventeen years ago, Rafael Nadal was still 18 years old when the tournament began. He hadn’t played the French Open before, but was still considered one of the favorites to win it. He arrived in Paris with five clay titles that year already–Costa do Sauipe, Acapulco (both in February), and the more recent winning streak that had him claim Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome back-to-back.
Nadal and Federer avoided each other on European clay that year. Federer played just two events, losing to Richard Gasquet in the quarterfinals at Monte Carlo, and winning Hamburg, which the Spaniard didn’t play. Their meeting in the semifinal was highly-anticipated – Nadal was on a 22-match win streak, Federer was trying to overcome the disappointment of losing to Marat Safin at the Australian Open, and as early as the third round, to Gustavo Kuerten during the previous edition.
It was just the third time they met as the two split their Miami meetings in 2004 and 2005 (Federer pulling off a massive comeback in the latter). The dynamics of the matchup (lefty forehand topspin against the weaker wing of the Swiss) weren’t yet fully established and with the World No. 1 having so much more experience at these stages, Federer was considered a slight favorite ahead of this one. But it was Nadal who ended up winning, taking the first of their six French Open clashes 6-3 4-6 6-4 6-3.
Quarterfinals against Djokovic in 2015
The edge was much bigger in this one, and rightfully so. Nadal’s clay season was his weakest one in years and his career really seemed to be drifting towards a more rapid decline (and yet we’re here, seven years and four more Roland Garros trophies later!). He came into Paris without any titles in the European swing, only winning Buenos Aires in February. To make matters worse, he was also easily dismantled by Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo, before losing to Fabio Fognini, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka.
Meanwhile, his biggest rival at the time played just Monte Carlo and Rome, taking the title in both. Still seeking his first Roland Garros title (and stopped only by Nadal for three years in a row), Djokovic was ready for their quarterfinal clash. This time Nadal didn’t get to beat the odds. The Serbian went up 4-0 and while the king of clay managed to level that set up, he would go on to lose 14 of the next 17 games, and the match 5-7 2-6 1-6.
How about this year?
Which of these previous two clashes resembles this year’s edition the most? In terms of the build-up, definitely the latter. The rival is Novak Djokovic again, who’s had a much better clay head-to-head with Nadal than Federer over the years (although still heavily losing). The Spaniard hasn’t done well in the warm-ups, losing to Carlos Alcaraz in Madrid and Denis Shapovalov in Rome. On top of that, he fractured his rib in Indian Wells, only to later struggle with a chronic foot injury. It hasn’t been a big problem in Paris yet, but it might if the match is as physical as “Rafole” encounters tend to be.
Bookmakers chose not to care about the aura of invincibility or the previous success Nadal has experienced at Roland Garros. They like logic, and logic told them if Novak Djokovic managed to get ahold of Rafael Nadal last year (then as an underdog), he will probably do the same here, now that the Spaniard’s preparation hasn’t gone as planned. What will we see on the court? Only time will tell.
Main Photo from Getty.