Rafael Nadal – Top 10 Memorable Matches
Rafael Nadal embodies what it means to be a competitor, so naturally he has fought some of the greatest matches in the history of the sport.
Looking back on a Slam career spanning the better part of two decades, Tennishead pores over the most noteworthy contests the 22-time Major champion has been a part of.
10. vs Fernando Verdasco – 2009 Australian Open Semi-final
Nadal wins 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-2), 6-7 (1-7), 6-4
In July 2008 Nadal had finally dethroned Roger Federer at Wimbledon. Soon after he topped the ATP rankings, ending the Swiss’ 237-week dominance there. Nadal was the new top dog entering the 2009 Australian Open, and he was about to cement his place there.
He reached the semi-finals with ease, only twice being pushed beyond 6-4 in a set. He then faced 14th seeded compatriot Fernando Verdasco, a man playing out of his mind. And so the contest lived up to the match-up.
The two men did battle for more than five hours before a double-fault from Verdasco handed the win to Nadal. It brought him to his first Major final on a hard court, one he went on to win against rival Federer to be just a US Open away from the Career Grand Slam.
9. vs Robin Soderling – 2009 French Open Fourth Round
Soderling wins 6-2, 6-7 (2-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-2)
While not a fond memory for Nadal, this match is certainly significant in the story of his career. After winning the 2005 French Open, Nadal more than backed up his maiden Slam triumph. He then won three more successively until 2008, defeating Federer in the final each year.
After reaching the fourth round in 2009 and with a 31-0 record at the event, Nadal met Swede Robin Soderling. Nadal had won the 2008 event without dropping a set, and had made it to this match without doing so either.
But that streak of 30 consecutive sets was ended by Soderling to shock the Spaniard. No matter, Nadal levelled the match by taking the second set in a tiebreak. But that was all the great champion could give as Soderling did the unprecedented to down the four-time champion.
More than a decade later Soderling is accompanied by only Novak Djokovic as the two men to ever beat Nadal on the Parisian clay. It was one of just two wins he ever claimed over the legend, but was easily the most significant.
8. vs Novak Djokovic – 2010 US Open Final
Nadal wins 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2
This was Nadal at the peak of his powers. After losing in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, the Spaniard claimed his fifth French Open and second Wimbledon titles. He came into New York as world number one once again and proceeded to blitz the field.
He reached the final without dropping a set to face Djokovic for the championship. Both men were chasing their first US Open title, with this being a first final for Nadal at Flushing Meadows. Moreover, it was the pair’s first meeting in a Slam final.
Djokovic did put up more resistance than anyone else in the draw by claiming the second set from Nadal. That was all he could muster though as the Spaniard secured his maiden US Open crown. In doing so he claimed his ninth Major title, completing the Career Grand Slam.
Aged just 24, he became the youngest man to achieve the feat. In addition, he became the first man ever to complete the Surface Slam, winning a Major on clay, grass and hard courts all in the same season. Djokovic has since become the only man to match the achievement, doing so in 2021.
7. vs Novak Djokovic – 2021 French Open Semi-final
Djokovic wins 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2
In the epic rivalry between Djokovic and Nadal, this was their ATP record-extending 58th career meeting. Nadal had won the previous two in the final of the Covid-delayed 2020 French Open and the final of the Rome Masters just weeks before the 2021 event.
Nadal entered the match with an unfathomable 105-2 record in Paris. One of those losses came against Djokovic at the 2015 event, a fate the Spaniard was to suffer once more. Nadal looked dominant up 5-0 in the opening set before eventually taking it 6-3.
But Djokovic was ready for a fight, as were the gathered fans on Court Philippe-Chatrier. With Covid measures still in place and a curfew imposed at 11pm, a government intervention allowed the crowd to remain past that time in order to witness the spectacle.
Djokovic outlasted the ‘King of Clay’ to inflict only his third ever loss at his favourite Slam. The Serb went on to claim the title, his second at Roland Garros, to keep his dream of the Calendar Slam alive heading to Wimbledon.
6. vs Mariano Puerta – 2005 French Open Final
Nadal wins 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5
This was the tournament that birthed Nadal’s Slam myth. Coming into the event aged just 18, the Spaniard dropped just two sets en route to the final. One of those was in the semi-final against world number one Federer, defeating the Swiss on his 19th birthday.
Into his first Major final, Nadal faced the unseeded Mariano Puerta for the championship. The dream appeared in danger after the teen dropped the opening set. However, from there he was in control to win in four sets.
And so Nadal captured the first of his 22 Slam crowns and incredible 14 Roland Garros titles to date. Having won on his debut, Nadal also became just the third man in the Open Era to win a Slam on his first appearance. He followed Mats Wilander’s French Open win in 1982 and Andre Agassi’s Australian Open victory in 1995.
5. vs Roger Federer – 2017 Australian Open Final
Federer wins 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3
This was a big moment on the comeback trail for both Nadal and Federer. The Swiss was stuck on 17 Slam titles after Wimbledon 2012. Meanwhile Nadal had not contested a Major final since the 2014 French Open.
Despite their absences, the two met in Slam final for the first time since 2011. It was a ninth Slam final contested by the two, and as ever it did not disappoint. Nadal had had the better of Federer in all three of their previous Melbourne meetings.
That included their first, the epic 2009 final.
4. vs Novak Djokovic – 2013 French Open Semi-final
Nadal wins 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3-7), 9-7
Drawn in the same half of the draw, this match was for all intents and purposes the 2013 French Open final. The two men had met in the championship match in 2012, Nadal triumphing in four sets that day. More recently, Djokovic defeated the Spaniard in the final of Monte Carlo. That prevented Nadal from claiming a ninth consecutive title at the Masters 1000 event.
Nadal went two sets to one up and served for the match at 6-5 in the fourth. Despite being just two points from victory at 30-15, he was denied by Djokovic before the Serb forced a fifth with a 7-3 tiebreak win.
Djokovic broke to open the fifth. Serving at 4-3 he was on the brink of inflicting just a second ever defeat for Nadal at Roland Garros.
But after four hours of battling in the Parisian sun he made a fatal error at deuce. After pushing Nadal into a defensive lob, Djokovic looked to finish the point with simple volley.
However, with the ball so close to the net, the top seed touched the net before the ball bounced twice. As a result Nadal won the point despite being nowhere near the ball, leaving Djokovic bemused. Nadal went on to break to level the score 4-4.
Without a tiebreak to separate them, the two men held until Nadal led 8-7. A missed overhead from Djokovic and a defiant backhand pass from Nadal put him up 0-30. A forehand long from Djokovic handed the Spaniard three match points.
As another forehand sailed out from Djokovic and after four hours and 37 mintues of fighting, Nadal was into his eighth Roland Garros final. He then secured his eighth title over compatriot David Ferrer, leaving Djokovic waiting another year to complete his Career Grand Slam.
3. vs Daniil Medvedev – 2022 Australian Open Final
Nadal wins 2-6, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5
This match was the culmination of an incredible comeback for Nadal at the 2022 Australian Open. After finishing the 2021 season in August with injury, few expected the 35-year-old to return to the top so soon.
Nadal survived Denis Shapovalov and beat Matteo Berrettini to reach his first final in Melbourne since 2019. There he met 2021 finalist and recently-crowned US Open champion Daniil Medvedev.
Medvedev won the opener 6-2, but Nadal looked to have the upper hand in the second after twice going a break up. Despite a set point chance up Ad-40, 5-3, Nadal could not take it before Medvedev broke back after a 13-minute game. The Russian eventually took it 7-5 in a tiebreak to leave Nadal with a mountain to climb.
The pivotal moment of the tussle came at 2-3 in the third set. With Nadal serving down 0-40, the matched seemed all but over if he could not hold on in the game. A sumptuous forehand drop shot saved the first break point. Nadal went on to hold before rallying to claim the set 6-4. Game on.
The 20-time Slam champion held firm to take the fourth by the same margin, levelling the contest. A break each for the duo took the decider to 5-5 before Nadal broke to have a shot at serving for the championship. He did not hesitate, holding to love to surprise himself and the world with a 21st Major crown.
That saw him overtake Djokovic and Federer to lead the men’s Slam tally. It also meant Nadal joined Djokovic in completing the Double Career Grand Slam as he added to his first Australian Open title from 2009.
2. vs Novak Djokovic – Australian Open 2012 Final
Djokovic wins 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5-7), 7-5
This was a battle that epitomised what a shared struggle the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry has been. Djokovic had dominated Nadal in 2011. The two met six times that year, in four Masters finals and two Slam finals. The Serb won all six, including becoming world number one for the first time with his maiden Wimbledon title.
This was a third consecutive Major final between the two after Wimbledon and the US Open in 2011. The first set alone required 80 minutes for Nadal to come out on top. Another hour and it was one set all. The match surpassed three hours before Djokovic sealed the third 6-2.
Djokovic had three break chances up 0-40 on the Nadal serve at 3-4 in the fourth. But the Spaniard saved all three before snatching the 88-minute long set in a tiebreak. And so the match entered a decider after four hours and 39 minutes of play.
The pair exchanged breaks to reach 4-3 for Nadal and break the record for the longest match in Australian Open history. The ninth game of the set opened with a 31-shot rally that ended with a missed Djokovic backhand before the number one tumbled to the court in exhaustion.
Despite his fatigue, the Serb broke for 6-5 before serving out the championship after five hours and 53 minutes. In doing so he won the longest slam final in the Open Era and claimed his third Melbourne crown and fifth Slam triumph overall.
Meanwhile Nadal was left to wonder what could have been after such a monumental effort saw him come out the loser.
1. vs Roger Federer – Wimbledon 2008 Final
Nadal wins 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7
In the eyes of many this is the greatest match of all time, so it must come in top spot here.
Nadal, was into a third consecutive Wimbledon final after losing to Federer twice in 2006 and 2007. Meanwhile Federer was the five-time defending champion and chasing a 13th Major crown.
Federer’s reign seemed well and truly over after Nadal took the opening two sets 6-4, 6-4. But the Swiss was already a legend for a reason. He got himself to a tiebreak in the third, putting it away 7-5 to stay in the fight.
True drama came to the fore in the fourth set tiebreak. Nadal conjured up his first championship point at 6-7 on the Federer serve. But a big serve wide jammed Nadal to save the match.
A stupendous passing winner from Nadal brought another, but an equally stunning backhand pass from Federer rescued him once more. After securing the mini-break Federer drew a missed return from Nadal to force a fifth.
The decider was fought tooth-and-nail before Nadal seized the break to go up 8-7 and serve for the championship. As darkness fell on Centre Court past 9pm local time, Federer dumped a forehand approach into the net.
Nadal fell to the turf as the new Wimbledon champion, a career-defining moment on his way to all-time greatness.
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