The ATP Head2Head rivalry between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal has developed into one of the classic rivalries in tennis history. But early on in their careers, the budding stars typically played relatively one-sided matches.
It wasn’t until their 10th meeting — in the 2008 Hamburg semi-finals — that they went to a deciding set for the first time.
Djokovic was the No. 3 player in the FedEx ATP Rankings, and the Serbian led the ATP Race To London. Earlier in 2008, he had earned his first Grand Slam trophy at the Australian Open and his first clay-court ATP Masters 1000 title in Rome. Although Nadal had won their first three clay-court matches without losing a set, Djokovic was playing the best tennis of his career. The winner would leave Hamburg as World No. 2.
The moment brought the best out of both stars, with Nadal ultimately triumphing 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 in a three-hour, three-minute marathon.
“It was unfortunate it finished as a loss for me but I have to take the positives out of the match,” Djokovic said, according to Eurosport. “I feel that with this performance and the match in general I am getting closer to him on clay and hopefully next time I can get a win.”
The final-set scoreline makes it seem like Nadal found another level — which he did — and simply ran away with the third set. But the 6-2 score is deceiving, as Djokovic battled until the very end. It was a back-and-forth affair, with the last game lasting more than 15 minutes and Nadal needing five match points to break through. The lefty saved 15 of 19 break points.
“It was an amazing match,” Nadal said according to Eurosport. “I am a little bit tired right now, so let’s see how I feel tomorrow.”
Nadal went on to beat Roger Federer in the championship match, avenging a loss against the Swiss in the 2007 Hamburg final.
Shortly thereafter, Nadal claimed his fourth Roland Garros crown and his first Wimbledon trophy, ascending to World No. 1 for the first time in August.
Djokovic completed his breakthrough season by winning the Tennis Masters Cup and remaining World No. 3 through the entire year. After losing his first nine clay-court matches against the Spaniard, Djokovic finally beat Nadal on the surface in the 2011 Mutua Madrid Open final.
The Hamburg match was a sign of things to come. When playing well, Djokovic and Nadal bring the best out of each other, with grinding baseline rallies keeping fans across the world on the edge of their seats.