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It Became Impossible to Hurt Him

It Became Impossible to Hurt Him

By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Thursday, May 30, 2024

Rafael Nadal wears his iconic bull logo on his chest, but he’s a tennis chameleon at heart, says Novak Djokovic.

Reigning champion Djokovic dismissed Roberto Carballes Baena 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 charging into the Roland Garros third round for a men’s record 19th consecutive year.

Nadal: Three Factors Will Decide My Future

Asked afterward to assess peak play from the king of clay, Djokovic began his response by detailing one of Nadal’s most underappreciated assets— excellence evolving his game.

The Grand Slam king said Nadal became a better player about a decade into his historic career because mounting injury forced him to change his style and become a more aggressive player.

Three-time Roland Garros champion Djokovic said Nadal made three primary changes about 10 years into his career:

1. Beefed up his backhand

2. Adopted more aggressive court positioning

3. Handled the high ball to his two-hander better as he got older.

“I actually think that he has improved his backhand as he was getting older. He was probably conscious of, you know, physical struggles that he had, and he had to be more aggressive on the court,” Djokovic told the media in Paris today. “So he was, you know, still topspinning the forehand better than anybody has ever done it, and he still kept that incredible defense and offense in the forehand.

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

Together, the iconic champions created the most prolific rivalry in ATP history. They’ve faced off 59 times with Djokovic holding a 30-29 head-to-head edge over Nadal.

Still, the soon-to-be 38-year-old Nadal won their last match at the 2022 Roland Garros quarterfinals and they’ve split the last eight meetings of their historic head-to-head series.

Relentless revision is vital to Nadal’s ongoing evolution.

“Today I have to adapt my game to the new time and to my age,” Nadal said after his run to the 2022 Roland Garros title. “That’s what I did during all my career, just try to adapt my game. That’s the only reason why at this moment I’m still here competing at a high level.

“I know during my career, I’m going to lose things on my way, so I need to add new things.”

During the first decade of their rivalry, Djokovic said Nadal was moving better and was so physically imposing it…

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