Novak Djokovic praises Rafael Nadal as 'greatest rival' following potential final French Open appearance

-Credit: (Image: POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
-Credit: (Image: POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Novak Djokovic has paid homage to his "greatest rival" Rafael Nadal following what might have been the Spaniard's last French Open performance.

Nadal, a 14-time champion at Roland Garros, was ousted in the opening round this year, succumbing to a 6-3 7-6 (7-5) 6-3 loss to Alexander Zverev on Monday. This defeat ensures that Nadal will not be extending his unparalleled tally of victories in France. In a poignant address, he suggested that he may not return to the tournament in the future due to ongoing injury struggles.

Meanwhile, Serbian ace Djokovic is advancing as a strong contender for his fourth title. He secured his place in the third round of the French Open on Thursday with a victory over Roberto Carballes Baena. In the aftermath of his recent win, Djokovic didn't miss the chance to acknowledge Nadal's impact. During a press conference, he remarked: "He has been the greatest rival that I ever had.", reports the Mirror.

Djokovic reflected on their clay court encounters, saying: "Matches against him on clay have frustrated me so much in my career, but they also made me a better player, made me understand what it takes to try to surpass him; try to win at least once or twice at Roland-Garros."

He added: "It's the highest mountain to climb for me to win Roland-Garros, particularly because of Nadal, because I always have to win against him in order to get to the title. We had some really fantastic matches here."

Novak Djokovic heaped praise on Rafael Nadal, suggesting the tennis maestro has become an even more formidable opponent with age. "I have experienced first-hand his evolution as a player", he added. Djokovic observed that Nadal's backhand has notably improved over time. "I actually think that he has improved his backhand as he gets older. He was probably conscious of physical struggles that he had, and he had to be more aggressive."

The Serbian ace highlighted Nadal's unparalleled topspin forehand and his ability to maintain exceptional defence and offence. "He was still top-spinning the forehand better than anybody has ever done, and he still kept that incredible defence and offence on the forehand, but I think with [his] backhand he was just able to handle the high balls better than he was at the beginning of our encounters."

Rafael Nadal -Credit:Getty Images
Rafael Nadal -Credit:Getty Images

Alexander Zverev, after facing Nadal in the French Open, also shared warm words for the Spaniard. Post-match, Zverev expressed his admiration: "I don't know what to say. Thank you Rafa from all of the tennis world."

Zverev continued, acknowledging the privilege of playing against Nadal. "It is such a great honour. I've watched Rafa play all my childhood and I was lucky enough to play him two times on this beautiful court. Today is not my moment, it is Rafa's moment. I'm not going to speak much."