As the two biggest rivals converged again at Roland-Garros, many factors argued in favor of Novak Djokovic. While he and Rafael Nadal had arrived in the clay-court season full of uncertainties, only Djokovic had made notable steps forward since. Nadal, meanwhile, was still looking for his best form after his fractured rib. His preparation was complicated with a flare-up from his chronic foot injury. His form in Paris was, so far, below normal.
But it was Nadal at Roland Garros, the man who won 110 times at home with just three losses, who showed in his 17 years that form and other frivolous anecdotes have little relevance in the face of total domination and unprecedented. . In a game that started in May and ended in June, Nadal blasted Djokovic in the early stages, then absorbed several fightbacks before winning 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 ( 4).
In the historic 59th meeting of the never-ending rivalry, Nadal goes 29-30 against Djokovic in their head-to-head record. He will face Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals, who played the best big game of his career as he drowned out the hype and passed an often erratic Carlos Alcarazdrowning out the surrounding hype as they won 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7).
When they met for the first time in their careers in 2006 on these courts and in this same round, Nadal was a former Grand Slam champion while Djokovic represented Serbia. and Montenegro. Sixteen years later, this occasion marked the first time in the Open era that two players with 20 Grand Slam titles have faced each other.
Nadal arrived on his court and set the tone early on, forcing his way inside the baseline and looking to unload on his forehand down the line, the historic barometer of his confidence. He moved extremely well, constantly countering under heavy early pressure. In the many close first games, Nadal broke Djokovic’s serve in the opener after several deuces, then immediately consolidated it.
When Djokovic generated break points on his second service game with a short flurry of crisp returns, Nadal rose to smother them immediately and he broke for the second time with a thundering forehand down the line.
In these early stages, while a sublime Nadal took the set, Djokovic struggled. His backhand sprayed atypical unforced errors, missed returns and he struggled to follow. Nadal punished him accordingly, winning four of Djokovic’s first six service games and establishing a 6-2, 3-0 lead with a double break.
It was only a matter of time before Djokovic asserted himself on the game, and that’s when he did. Djokovic mowed down Nadal’s serve with his return and he slowly moved over the baseline as he dictated the rally, smashing the ball in and rushing Nadal’s forehand as the Spaniard was starting the short ball. Despite how he went through six of the next seven games, they had a drawn out and brutal series of matches as Djokovic improved the game.
Djokovic’s level rose sharply, but it didn’t last. Nadal opened the third set continuously looking for the net and he broke serve again immediately. In doing so, Djokovic struggled to keep up. He played a sloppy game at 3-1, delivering the double break with a loose backhand error. As Djokovic’s errors continued to flow, there would be no response in the third set.
But the momentum only continued to waver. Djokovic recalled his return of serve, landing countless returns at the feet of Nadal. As he broke serve in Nadal’s first service game, he was back on top of the baseline again, putting constant pressure on Nadal and presenting himself with a chance to serve the set. But Nadal charged, saving two set points then nailing a forehand winner inside out to break.
At the start of the fourth set tie-break, Nadal soared. He was timing his forehand better on the line than at any time since the first set. He nailed three straight forehands to start the tiebreaker and with each point the task before Djokovic grew darker and darker. His stay at Nadal’s house this year ended with a thunderous punch to the Spaniard’s racket.
Earlier Tuesday night, Zverev played one of the best big games of his young career, staying solid against Alcaraz and drowning out the surrounding hype as he won 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(7) . With his win, Zverev took a notable step by earning a top-10 win at a Grand Slam for the first time in his career.
Most notably, once himself a big young prospect on the tour, Zverev has been a clear reminder of his own abilities and the threat he poses to the best players at the top of their game. Alcaraz, meanwhile, fought to the bitter end and left his first Grand Slam tournament with a lesson that should only further enhance his growth. “I’m leaving the court, I’m leaving the tournament with my head held high,” Alcaraz said. “I fight until the last ball. I fought until the last second of the game and I’m proud of it.
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