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

Rafael Nadal wears his iconic bull logo on his chest, but he's a champion 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 felt like facing a tennis terminator on court. As the two-time Olympic gold-medal champion aged and injuries mounted, he wasn't the same physical force, however he developed into a knockout artist of both wings.

While Djokovic leads the rivalry and the Grand Slam race, he says Nadal's backhand boost made it "impossible to hurt him" in baseline exchanges on dirt.  

"He was probably moving better and had better physical condition in the first ten years of his career here in Roland Garros, but then after that he had to adjust," Djokovic said of Nadal. "I think he did very well with the backhand particularly. I found his backhand very, very, very consistent and really a big weapon.The kind of pattern against Rafa was kind of always trying to find that backhand, get him out of the court and open up the forehand.

"But, you know, then he improved so much on that backhand and court positioning that it became, you know, impossible to find kind of a weak spot from the baseline, you know, to hurt him."

Djokovic looked like his punishing self in his straight-sets win today as he continues his quest for a record-extending 25th Grand Slam championship in Paris with another record in sight.

Should Djokovic reach the French Open fourth round, he will equal Roger Federer's all-time Grand Slam wins mark with 369 major match victories.

Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty