Charting the Rivalries between Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer

2013 was a pretty historic year for the rivalries between Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Mainly for three reasons:

– Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic became joint holders of a pretty special record: their rivalry now holds the Open era record for times two men have played each other. The previous duo to hold that distinction was the Lendl-McEnroe pairing with 36 matches. Nadal and Djokovic matched that number in Montreal, and played each other 3 more times since. Given that one is 27 years old and the other just 26, it’s quite difficult to even predict how many total matches these two gentlemen will play against each other before their careers wrap up.

– By meeting twice within four days at the very end of the 2013 season, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic took their rivalry past the 30 match threshold. Interestingly enough, that remains the closest head-to-head among the trio: Federer’s lead over Djokovic is now down to just one win (16-15).

– The most publicized rivalry in men’s tennis also went past the 30 match threshold: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer played each other 4 times this year, and their total is now the second highest among the three rivalries (32 matches).

It’s staggering to think that the total number of matches from these three very unique rivalries is now at 102. Fans of tennis have definitely been spoiled by this trio.

As far as the 2013 totals, it’s quite fitting that it’s Rafael Nadal who ends with the best record (after all, he’s the only member of the trio to have a positive head-to-head in both rivalries). Here is a little matrix of their results for the season:


Anyway, the point of this post is to showcase the nice work done by our reader Sivaram, who put together some neat charts that help visualize the how the rivalries among this famous triad of our sport have developed over time. So, without further ado, here they are:

Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic (Nadal leads the Head-to-Head 22 to 17)

Nadal Djokovic

It’s worth remembering that until Djokovic’s incredible 2011 season, Rafael Nadal had thoroughly dominated their rivalry (the head-to-head was 16-7 in favor of the Spaniard at the end of 2010). Not only that, but Djokovic had never beaten Nadal on clay until 2011, never beaten him in a final, and never beaten him in a Grand Slam.

However, since 2011, Djokovic has won 10 of the last 16 meetings against Nadal, including 3 wins on clay, 3 wins in Grand Slam finals, and most astounding of all, all 10 wins have been in finals (3 at Slams, 1 at the World Tour Finals, 5 at Masters 1000s, and 1 on an ATP 500). And, as some of you might remember, 7 of those 10 wins were in a row.

Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer (Roger Federer leads the Head-to-Head 16 to 15)


As in the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, Roger Federer got off to a nice lead over Djokovic in their head-to-head: at the end of the 2010 season, the Swiss held a 13-6 advantage in their meetings. However, Djokovic had managed to beat Federer in two finals, and twice at Grand Slams.

But since the start of the 2011 season, Novak has won 9 of their past 12 matches.

Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer (Rafael Nadal leads the Head-to-Head 22-10)

fedal graph

Sivaram mentions the Federer-Nalbandián rivalry, which is rather fascinating: Nalby started by winning their first 5 matches, then Federer won 8 of the next 9, Nalbandián regrouped with two straight wins (during his magical stretch during the fall of 2007), and Federer finished things off with 3 straight wins. Federer reversed another horrible head-to-head during his career: he turned a 2-7 record against Lleyton Hewitt into a thumping 18-8 lead (winning 15 straight at one point).

Alas, like Sivaram said himself, this Federer-Nadal rivalry has been one-way traffic more or less since it began.

Juan José loves a well struck backhand down the line, statistics that tell a story, a nice lob winner, and competent returns of serve.

4 Responses

  1. mat4
    mat4 November 14, 2013 at 2:26 am |

    JJ, I would be very interested in your take about Novak’s change of game pattern against Rafa.

    In 2011, Novak had developed an efficient pattern against Rafa: pressure the BH playing FH CC and wait until Rafa tries to go DTL; most of this shots were shorter, and it allowed Novak to get in the court, attack with a BH CC at an acute angle, and when Rafa managed to get the ball, he would answer with a FH CC and be finished by Novak’s BH DTL.

    So Rafa worked on two shots: his BH CC and the FH DTL to break this pattern: he could stand the pressure playing with his BH CC suddenly, and when it didn’t work, the manage to defend his FH side playing DTL. Just watch the end of the epic match at Roland Garros.

    So, in the last two matches, Novak changed his own pattern. One, he improved his net game to cut Rafa’s defensive BH slices with volleys. Then, he reworked his BH [DTL] to be able to use it almost IO, and he worked a lot on his own FH DTL. Now, Novak plays almost always in the open side of the court, making Rafa run; he doesn’t jail Rafa in his BH corner, but makes him play the BH on the run, and that’s the moment he attacks. It allows Novak to be less predictive, and, by making Rafa guess where and when Novak will attack, Rafa loses a few tens of second and his timing is not good, especially for difficult shots DTL. It is very important, because Rafa needs to make big cuts for his shots to be deep and powerful enough.

    Finally, the few stats seen in the last match suggest that Rafa is covering 20% of court more than Novak, and it is a bonus.

  2. mat4
    mat4 November 14, 2013 at 5:38 am |

    Patrick Mouratoglou analysis here the Nadal – Djokovic match-up and rivalry:

    This article will probably be translated in English on yahoo sports, but I am not certain. But I believe that most of you know French… of course…

  3. Fernando
    Fernando November 16, 2013 at 12:41 am |

    Fernando says Rafa and Djoker are so far ahead of the field that is is likely that they will meet in the final of almost every tourney they enter. Djoker is quite adept at changing ball direction with pace from either side, which,on an indoor hard court especially, keeps Rafa on the run.

    You will see the difference when, in 2014, tennis retuns to real surfaces that give players the ability to defend and employ tactic. 2014 will be the defining year, no? Don’t be fooled by the post US Open success by Nole. Product of Indoor hard courts.

    I am Fernando @vivafernando

  4. Patrick of La Verne
    Patrick of La Verne November 18, 2013 at 12:23 am |

    One little quibble. When doing multiple comparisons like this, switching the scale of the graphs in midstream (however convenient it might be in terms of saving space), creates a visual distortion. A casual glance at these three graphs would give one the impression that there isn’t a great deal of difference between the three rivalries. In fact, the closeness of the Djokovic-Federer rivalry is understated because that graph is on a different scale than the other two.

    It’s kind of like an atlas that gives a full page to the United States and a full page to South America (or worse, Africa). A casual observer is led to believe that the US and South America are roughly the same size, when in fact Brazil alone is larger than the 48 contiguous states. Africa is roughly three times the United States, INCLUDING Alaska.

    But you wouldn’t know it from looking at American maps.

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