On a damp and chilly night in Paris, it took Rafael Nadal four hours and 14 minutes to avenge last year’s French Open defeat against Novak Djokovic. Even his most ardent fans might not have expected this win, given how his level has fluctuated throughout the tournament. A lot was made about how the night game was going to affect Nadal’s efficacy, but to rule him out at Roland Garros is ridiculous. The conditions and opponents take a back seat.
He owns the court, the stage, and the people, though the unanimous support he received last night was duly interrupted by Djokovic, whose name echoed around the stadium every time the Serbian found himself under the heat. Still, Djokovic had a lot of ground to cover in this aspect, as he would have realised in the fourth set, when the crowd’s support added wings to Nadal’s dream of reaching another semi-final. The match ended with a scoreline of 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6.
The second set, which he lost, was the only period of play where Nadal seemed to be devoid of any ideas. Other than that, it was a near-flawless display from the Spaniard, whose defense was simply unbreachable for majority of the game.
More than Djokovic, it was Nadal who needed the first set. The Spaniard might be the king of clay, but that agility, that athleticism has been on the wane. Every minute Nadal spends on the court brings him a moment closer to his epilogue. A sense of uncertainty looms over his career. There’s a gnawing fear that he might have already run his course. Before the game, Nadal had talked about how bad the injury has been, and yet in front of a boisterous crowd cheering his every shot, he looked like a youngster arriving on the scene, full of energy and verve and aggression.
Djokovic, contrary to expectations, didn’t really ace his serve game to go 1-0 up. He was made to toil hard for every point, there were no freebies, and on his way to save the third break point, his shot crashed into the nets and flew away. He was 1-0 down. As the set progressed, Nadal only got better. Djokovic, in contrast, looked rusty. His forehand has already disappeared, the ploy to push Nadal on his backhand side was not working, the world seemed to move farther away from Djokovic, who lost the first set.
The real match was about to begin now. This has become a trend of some sort, where losing the first set for Djokovic seems like a part of the greater plan, a lucid illusion before reality kicks in. He approaches his game like a marathoner, and you might outrace him for the first 10km—maybe even for the first 20 km—but that still doesn’t make you a favourite for the rest of the marathon. Djokovic will overtake you; he has made a career out of it.
There’s a cheat code that gets activated only after the first set is done and dusted. He overcame a three-game deficit, the zing returned in his groundstrokes, while his short-angled cross-court forehand put Nadal in a deep dilemma. A sense of comeback was most evident in the fifth game of the second set, when Djokovic started to dictate points, pushing Nadal to the corners of the court he hasn’t traversed so far in the game.
Djokovic won the second set, and midway through it, he let out a loud, extended growl, straight out of his diaphragm, like a death metal vocalist. It was perhaps his way of telling the crowds that the match has now started. These loud grunts often turn out to be the exact moment where things start clicking for him, and crumbling for the opponents. The exact moment where both mental and physical disintegration of opponents start. Except, this didn’t happen on Wednesday.
Djokovic’s main nemesis turned out to be his drop shots. His stubbornness to unleash these drop shots, which is easily the weakest suit of his game, defied logic. He used that and failed on some of the most crucial junctures of the game. While most of the time his drop shots ended up in his own half of the court, on rare instances when they flew to the opponent’s half, Nadal was quick and unforgiving in his response. This has also been a theme of Djokovic’s play in recent years. Against big opponents when things are simply not working, the Serbian starts going for drop shots. A shot in the dark, out of desperation.
The rhythm he found after winning the second set was lost again in the next set. The next set was a fun ride for Nadal, who cruised through to a 6-2 win. Djokovic got an early break to gain an upper edge in the fourth set, but soon he squandered a two-game lead. Nadal stretched the game to the tiebreaker, where it felt like Djokovic has already resigned to his fate, playing just for the sake of it. He then sealed the game to book a semi-final date with Alexander Zverev.