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It was impossible to hurt him

Written by Richard Pagliaro | @Itenisi_Manje | Thursday, May 30, 2024

Rafael Nadal He wears his bull mark on his chest, but he is a chameleon at heart, it says Novak Djokovic.

Reigning champion Djokovic was eliminated Roberto Carballes Baena 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 into the third round of Roland Garros is a men's record 19th consecutive year.

Nadal: Three Things That Will Determine My Future

Asked later to assess a top performance from the king of clay, Djokovic began his answer by describing one of Nadal's most underappreciated assets—his game-changing finesse.

The Grand Slam king said Nadal became a better player in the decade of his storied career because a spate of injuries forced him to change his style and become an aggressive player.

Three-time Roland Garros champion Djokovic said Nadal has made three key changes in his 10-year career:

1. He strengthened his back

2. An aggressive court position was taken

3. Catches a high ball from someone who uses two hands better as he gets older.

“Actually, I think he improved his backhand as he got older. He was probably aware, you know, of the physical difficulties he had, and he should have been more aggressive on the court,” Djokovic told the press in Paris today. . “So, you know, he still passed the front better than anybody ever did, and he kept that amazing defense and offense up front.

“But I think with the backhand he was able to handle the high balls on his backhand better than he was at the beginning of our meeting.”

Together, the iconic champions created the greatest rivalry in ATP history. They have met 59 times with Djokovic holding 30-29 against Nadal.

However, the 38-year-old Nadal won his last match in the quarterfinals of the 2022 Roland Garros and they split the last eight meetings of their historic head-to-head series.

Constant revision is essential to Nadal's continued evolution.

“Today I have to adapt my game to the new era and my age,” Nadal said after his run to the 2022 Roland Garros. “That's what I did when I was playing, I just tried to improve my game. That's why I'm still competing at a high level.

“I know when I work, I will lose things along the way, so I have to add new things.”

During the first decade of their rivalry, Djokovic said that Nadal had better moves and was physically stronger as if he were facing a tennis racket on the court. As the two-time Olympic gold medalist grew older and injured more and more, he wasn't the same physical force, yet he became a winning performer on both wings.

While Djokovic leads the rivalry and the Grand Slam race, he says Nadal's forehand has made it “impossible to hurt him” when they exchange trash.

“Maybe he was moving better and in better physical condition in the first ten years of playing at Roland Garros, but after that he had to adapt,” Djokovic said of Nadal. “I think he did really well with the backhand in particular. I found his backhand very, very, consistent and it's a really big weapon. Kind of the pattern against Rafa was kind of always trying to get that serve, get him off the court. and open up the forehand.

“But then, you know, he's improved so much in that backcourt position and on the court that, you know, it's impossible to find a kind of weak spot from the beginning, you know, to hurt him.”

Djokovic looked punishing in his straight-sets win today as he continues his quest for a record-extending 25th Grand Slam tournament in Paris and another record in sight.

Should Djokovic reach the fourth round of the French Open, he will equal Roger Federer's all-time Grand Slam record with 369 major match victories.

Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty

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