sneakersAt night, Rafael Nadal remembers who’s boss
The Roland-Garros king defied the odds to eliminate defending champion Novak Djokovic after an electric quarter-final match from 4:12 to 1:15.
He made everyone lie, including us. For his reunion with his biggest rival, Rafael Nadal was not the favorite of journalists, nor of bookmakers, nor of the “legends” of Roland-Garros. But on the night from Tuesday to Wednesday, the one he absolutely didn’t want to play on, the Grand Slam title record holder (21) ejected defending champion Novak Djokovic with no complaints, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7/4).
First game: 12 minutes
Just before 9pm on Tuesday, when the light dimmed on the Philippe-Chatrier court and only the highest row was lit, the first game of the 59 duel between these two living legends lasted twelve minutes. At this point, an entire arena knew what she was getting into.
Boosted, Nadal had a mad desire to avoid the observation round and grab Djokovic by the collar. He took his serve immediately, saved two break points at 3-1 and double-breaked to win the first set. As in 2020, when he lost in the final, or last year when he won the part, the Serbian, not protected by his first serve, started very badly (6-2).
Lightning in the legs and on the way up, Nadal nailed it with his seventh opportunity in the first game of the second set, after a second serve by Djokovic at 126 km/h. After 65 minutes of fighting, the Belgrade native had lost the match three times, as many as in previous rounds. His first ball percentage then went up. But “Rafa” was in an area that only he knows on clay (6-2 3-0).
Djokovic at night
That’s when the second life of this blockbuster came. While facing a break point against him, Nadal freed himself a little bit from the ball in a shot that died in the net. After 1h22 of play, Djokovic finally entered this semifinal and reached his double break from behind, carried by a found forehand that ended up hurting. When night fell completely, the Serbian went from 0-3 to 4-3 and then tied for a set everywhere (6-2 4-6). We had a game.
The beginning of the third set coincided with the third chapter of this encounter. Broken from the start – as in the previous two rounds – Djokovic experienced a moment of decompression after the few minutes of interruption. The author of 16 unforced errors, he passed while Nadal, who could have physically fallen, took control with mad authority (6-2 4-6 6-2). The clock then showed midnight and the two men had been on the court for three hours.
Djokovic and the net
After three failures, Djokovic finally held his first match at the start of the 4th round. Frustrated to see one of his forehands slowed by the net boards in the second game, he took out his anger on that damn net, which he was often unlucky with early in the night. A handful of stitches later, he paused before confirming. At 5-3, the world number 1 thought about sending everyone in a fifth set of all possible. But Nadal didn’t give up…
On his first set point, Djokovic sent his crossed backhand into the net. In the second, Nadal unsheathed a spectacular backhand pass. A point later, at a breaking point, the Mallorcan could do nothing in a divine amortized Serb. But at his second chance, his uncrossed forehand remained on the court and “Rafa” drew in five games everywhere in front of spectators wrapped in blankets or standing, chanting and screaming. There were no more intermediaries.
“Rafa” absolutely didn’t want a fifth chapter, so he went for the first point of the decisive game on the net, on the opponent’s serve. Quickly leading 3-0 when he had just caught the wrong side on a forehand attack, Djokovic went back from 6-1 to 6-4 at maximum risk in exchange for the forehand. But Nadal managed one last winning backhand before letting go at 4:12 of the match. At 1:15 am on Wednesday, he reminded everyone that they were the head of the Porte d’Auteuil. Day and night.