The 13-time champion Rafael Nadal lost only his third match at Roland Garros as Novak Djokovic prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 in the semifinal on Friday night.
The two rivals have faced each other 58 times, half of them in finals. But the tennis fraternity has already declared their latest clash as an instant classic. Nadal reeled off the first five games as many expected a rout similar to last year’s straight-set final. Djokovic avoided the bagel and struck back in the second. But it was the feature-length third set – 93 minutes full of plot twists and sublime tennis – that should be shelved among the greatest action-thrillers.
Two neat holds to 15 to kick off the third set was the calm before the storm. What followed was the two rivals scampering, retrieving, exploiting angles and covering every inch of Court Philippe-Chatrier. There were stone-cold drop shots, bewildering misses and exchange of breaks as action came fast and furious.
Flashes of familiarity came in the form of whipping forehands down the line from Nadal. But it was Djokovic who flipped the script, working the points towards Nadal’s backhand, starting with his service.
In the first set, 50 per cent of Djokovic’s first serves were directed either wide on the deuce court or on Nadal’s body on the ad side. In the second, the percentage went up to 55. In the third set, the ploy became decidedly instrumental with 63 per cent of Djokovic’s serves looking to restrict Nadal for room (80 per cent directed out wide on deuce court, 56 per cent on the body on ad). And 90 per cent of his second serves kicked, spun and followed the same channels.
In short, Djokovic pulled a Nadal on Nadal. He sent the Spaniard wide on the backhand with side-spinning groundstrokes. The forehand thwacks regularly ventured into Nadalesque 3200+ rpm (revolutions per minute) territory. In the tie-breaker, it was a 3500 rpm ripper that painted the line and put Djokovic in front at 2-1.
Attacking the backhand
As for dealing with Nadal’s out wide first serves, Djokovic took the returns early and deposited them deep right at the baseline, again playing to Nadal’s backhand. Nadal was pinned back and forced into rallies filled with backhands – 199 times he continued the rally with his backhand against 194 on the forehand. Djokovic meanwhile found his forehand easily, 214 times against 174 in the rallies.
Then there were the errors. According to the scoresheet, Nadal had 23 unforced errors in the third set. Over the three sets in last year’s final, there were 14 from the Spaniard.
“I had a big chance with set point, 6-5, second serve (in the third set). That’s it. Anything could happen in that moment,” Nadal told reporters after the match.
“Then I made a double fault, (missed an) easy volley in the tie-break. But it’s true that (there were) crazy points out there. The fatigue is there, too. These kind of mistakes can happen.”
The missed volley in the tie-breaker summed up the match for Nadal. Serving at 3-4, he constructed the point with a drop shot, rushed into positions, made the balls, attacked while defending, set up an easy volley at the net… but the racquet was a tad too open. Nadal buried his face in his hands as soon as the ball made contact. It sailed long, Djokovic had the mini break. And an ace and another rally later, the third set.
Fourth set meltdown
With the 11pm Covid-19 curfew threatening to break the spell, the 5,000-strong crowd broke out into a “On partira pas, on partira pas (We won’t leave, we won’t leave”), chants. Then came another twist, as the stadium announcer said, “In agreement with the national authorities, the match will come to an end in your presence.”
The whistling and jeering made way for cries of ‘Merci Macron!’, referring to the French President Emmanuel Macron. A seemingly-buoyed Nadal too hit back to take a 2-0 lead in the fourth set. The stage was set for further drama. What followed instead was an anti-climactic epilogue