Gilbert Reveals Key For Djokovic Against Nadal
Brad Gilbert was courtside for the first match Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal ever played, at Roland Garros in 2006. Now 16 years later, the two tennis legends will play for the 10th time at the clay-court Grand Slam — and the 59th time overall — in Tuesday night's quarter-final.
The former World No. 4 admitted a rooting interest in the showdown. He’s pulling for another classic match.
“The tennis fan in me, I just hope we see one of those titanic matches like we saw last year,” he said, referencing the 2021 semi-final epic won by the Serbian. “Sweaty palms, incredible tennis. That’s what I’m rooting for. Then it’s a win-win for tennis.”
Gilbert called that match and the pair’s 2018 Wimbledon semi-final (won by Djokovic over two days) the highest-level contests between them. He sees no reason not to expect more of the same this time around.
“Djoker just quietly has lifted his game,” he assessed. “He’s won 22 sets on the trot [dating back to his Rome title run]. He’s back to kind of being normal Djoker.
“[Diego] Schwartzman’s a hell of a player and he just wiped him out. Obviously he’s not Rafa, but that shows how sharp Djokovic has been.”
Gilbert is particularly impressed with the Serbian’s fast starts in those matches and his ability to take command — and take away his opponent’s belief — with early breaks.
“He’s back to starting really fast and he’s playing some seriously good ball,” he said.
“I think that the key will be how he can attack the Rafa forehand. Because I think when he plays his best against Rafa, he’s able to attack Rafa’s forehand.”
As for Nadal, Gilbert was impressed by his outing against Felix Auger-Aliassime and the way the Spaniard improved over the course of the marathon match.
“The most obvious thing for Rafa — he hadn’t really been tested at the French, and then on Sunday he goes four hours and 20 minutes. He looked good physically, didn’t have any of the foot problems that he’s been having, so that was a good sign.
“It’s a 48-hour turnaround and that was a physical match, but it was needed because FAA played some serious ball.”
Despite both men’s strong form so far this Paris fortnight, it’s their performance in the second week that will define their respective campaigns.
“You don’t judge a tournament off the first 12 sets,” Gilbert said. “You judge it off the last nine sets.
“At the moment, Rafa has a 7-2 head-to-head against him at Roland Garros. He has the greatest history at this one event. Djoker has played the best tennis through the first 12 sets… but he hasn’t played Rafa.”
One big talking point ahead of this match was whether it would be scheduled during the daytime or the evening session. Nadal said that he preferred an earlier start, while Djokovic favoured an evening match.
While the match will be played under the Court Philippe Chatrier lights, Gilbert downplayed the significance of the evening conditions.
“Rafa maybe wanted to play in the day. He wants it fast,” he said. “But Djoker’s great in any conditions, so is Rafa. Both of them – you play them any time, anywhere, they’re gonna play good tennis.
"It’s just a matter of who’s going to be slightly better on the day; who executes.”
So who has the edge entering this heavyweight showdown?
“If it was an [American] football game, Djoker’s about a 1.5-point favourite,” Gilbert said, using his customary handicapping analogy.
“I do think that the first set a lot of times in big matches can be key. But these guys are so good that they can make adjustments. It will be interesting in slower conditions.
"I expect the crowd to be absolutely rocking tomorrow night.”