At a stretch: Rafael Nadal returns the ball to Novak Djokovic in their 2006 Roland Garros quarter-final, the pair's first career meeting

Paris (AFP) - It’s one of the greatest rivalries in tennis, currently standing at 57 matches, encompassing Grand Slams, Masters, Olympics and Davis Cups.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will meet once again in the semi-finals of the French Open on Friday at Roland Garros, the very place where they first clashed in 2006.

AFP Sport looks back on that day 15 years ago:

Pre-match

– Second seed Nadal was the defending champion having won the first of his 13 Roland Garros titles, and 20 majors overall, 12 months earlier at the age of 19.

Djokovic, world number one now, was then a brash 19-year-old ranked at 63.

“I’m going out there to win, not just play,” said Djokovic who had defeated three top 30 players to reach the quarter-finals.

The match

– Djokovic was hoping the French crowd would get behind him on Court Philippe Chatrier. He had even donned a France football team shirt in his pre-match media conference hoping to tap into the national feelgood mood which would see Les Bleus reach the final of the World Cup in Germany that summer.

All over: Novak Djokovic retires at two sets down to Rafael Nadal in the 2006 quarter-final

Unfortunately, the early afternoon start meant that most of the courtside seats were empty. Not even Nadal and Djokovic could compete with the attractions of lunchtime schmoozing in the nearby VIP restaurants.

Dressed in his white pedal-pushers, Nadal broke first, but Djokovic hit back. Nadal carved out another break for 2-1 and that was enough for the first set 6-4.

Both players exhibited mannerisms and habits which would become common-place over the next 15 years.

Commentators were intrigued by the number of times Djokovic bounced the ball between serves – “14, 15, 16”.

At the other end, cameras picked out ‘Vamos’ scribbled in pen on the heel of Nadal’s right shoe.

The champion, shoulder-length hair kept under control by a white bandana, showcased his fussy service action, punctuated by the picking at his shorts and mopping of his brow.

In no time at all, he was a double-break up for 3-0 before Djokovic retrieved one break to trail 2-4.

In between, Djokovic had taken a nasty-looking tumble into the red dust. He never looked comfortable again.

Nadal pocketed the second set 6-4 and three points into the third set, Djokovic retired with a back injury.

It was Nadal’s 58th consecutive win on clay.

Post-match

– The Serb stunned his news conference by insisting “I think I was in control of the match”.

“I was playing pretty well. Everything was depending on my racquet. Even with a sore back, I think I played equal.

“I think I could have won today. He’s not unbeatable.”

Nadal was so baffled by Djokovic’s revisionist summary that when he was asked if he thought the Serb was right to state he had controlled proceedings, he demanded the question be translated into Spanish so he could be sure he understood.

“Oh yes,” said Nadal, tongue firmly in cheek and to howls of laughter. “If he thinks that, it’s OK. I don’t need to answer.”

TV pundits were equally perplexed.

“Novak, do you need smelling salts?” asked bemused former player and ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert.

Not you again: Nadal and Djokovic in the 2020 Roland Garros final won by the Spaniard in straight sets

“If you want to incite Rafa, the next time you play, he’s going to drop the hammer on you. It was heavyweight against middleweight out there.”

Gilbert was right. Nadal won all nine of the pair’s first clay-court meetings. It took Djokovic until Madrid in 2011 to achieve his maiden victory on the surface against the Spanish star.

Nadal went on to win Roland Garros that year and defended it in 2007 and 2008. He was sinking his teeth into the Coupe des Mousquetaires again in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Djokovic has lost three Paris finals to Nadal – in 2012, 2014 and 2020 – but claimed his first and only Roland Garros title in 2016.

However, he still retains the consolation of being one of only two men to have beaten Nadal at the tournament - in the 2015 quarter-finals.

And what about those 57 meetings? Well, Djokovic currently leads 29-28.

View from 2021

Nadal (13 French Opens; 20 Grand Slams)

– “We know each other well. Everybody knows that in these kind of matches anything can happen. But it is a semi-final. It’s not a final. That’s a big difference.”

Djokovic (1 French Open; 18 Grand Slams)

– “Rafa is the biggest rival I’ve ever had in my career. The anticipation for the match against him, any match, any surface, any occasion, is always different from any other.”