Nadal overcomes Felix Auger-Aliassime to set up Novak Djokovic quarter-final | French Open 2022


Rafael Nadal has played 112 tennis matches at Roland Garros over the course of his career and he has somehow lost just three times on these courts. But an even more absurd measure of his total dominance lies in how few players have even managed to push him close to the edge, have made him truly doubt. Before Sunday afternoon, only two times over his 17 years he had any opponent even extended him to five sets at the French Open.

Along came Felix Auger-Aliassime, who stepped on to Court Philippe Chatrier with quality, courage and belief in his capabilities, and he took advantage of a sub-par Nadal to force a fifth set and push him all the way. But even as Nadal struggled with his game, when he desperately needed to step up, he soared. Still in the fight for his 14th French Open title, Nadal edged out Auger-Aliassime 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to reach the quarter-finals.

As a consequence of Nadal’s victory, he and Novak Djokovic will summarize their historic rivalry on the biggest stages when they face each other in the quarterfinal for their 59th meeting on Tuesday.

“In the end, the sport is normally very simple, right?” said Nadal afterwards. “When you play better you have better chances; if you play worse, then you have of course less chances, right? In that case, when I played well, I won the match. When I played not that well, I had a lot of troubles, right?“

For the match-up between his two employers, his nephew and his charge, Toni Nadal chose the most conspicuous seat in the house – front row of the presidential box. I watched on as, after the elation of Real Madrid’s Champions League win that Nadal attended, on an extremely cold afternoon Nadal started the match out of sorts.

While Nadal sprayed errors and missed numerous break points, Auger-Aliassime served well enough and played solidly off the ground to lead 5-1. Nadal retrieved one break at the end of the set, and he began a seemingly inevitable recovery that culminated with a break at 4-3 in the second set. Nadal then rode all of his momentum to a two sets to one lead.

Just as it seemed that Nadal was in control, however, he inexplicably started the fourth set with a flurry of unforced errors. Nadal lost his serve in his opening game, then after immediately retrieving the break he gave it up again with more poor forehand errors.

Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime acknowledges fans after losing. Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

While Nadal struggled, Auger-Aliassime remained focused on himself. He peppered Nadal with well-timed drop shots, he continued to look for forehands to dominate with and he was supreme at the net. For his resilience and composure, he was rewarded with a fifth set.

Throughout the final set, Auger-Aliassime continued to push himself to the limit, serving well and making difficult volleys. But Nadal made his move at 4-3, completely elevating his level by attacking returns and closing down the net himself. After pushing hard to create a break point opportunity, Nadal chased down Auger-Aliassime’s drop volley, slipped a slice backhand into the open court to take the decisive break. As he served out the match with ease, after alternating between chants for the two players all match, the crowd finished cheering for one man only.

“Being honest, every match that I play here, I don’t know if I’m going to be my last match here in Roland Garros in my tennis career, no?” said Nadal afterwards, referring to his chronic foot injury of him. “That’s my situation now. Of course I went through a tough process again with my foot, so I don’t know what can happen in the near future with my career. But that’s why I am just trying to enjoy as.”

Auger-Aliassime already lost a heartbreaking five-setter to Daniil Medvedev at the Australian Open this year, but despite further frustration he leaves Paris having further shown his progression. The 21-year-old’s attempts, along with coaches Fred Fontang and Toni Nadal, to turn him into a well-rounded player are bearing fruit. From the player who would run out of ideas in his early exchanges against the big players, here he continually searched for solutions and often found them.

For Nadal, the next obstacle is clear. Earlier in the day, Djokovic moved past 15th seed Diego Schwartzman without incident, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3. “Playing him in Roland Garros is always a physical battle, along with everything else,” said Djokovic. “It happens. It’s a huge challenge and probably the biggest one that you can have here at Roland Garros. I’m ready for it.”


www.theguardian.com

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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