Rafael Nadal has contested 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 twice over his 17 years, had any opponent even extended him to five sets here.
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 to the edge. But even as Nadal struggled with aspects of his game, when he desperately needed to step up, he soared and finished the match on his terms. Still in the fight for his 14th French Open title, Nadal edged it 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.
As a consequence, he and Novak Djokovic will rekindle their historic rivalry on the very biggest stages once more when they face each other in a quarter-final for the 59th time on Tuesday .
For the match-up between his employers past and present, his nephew and his new coaching charge, Toni Nadal chose the most conspicuous seat in the house – front row of the presidential box alongside Gilles Moretton, the president of the French tennis federation. He had a front row seat as, after the elation of Real Madrid’s Champions League win that Nadal attended on Saturday night, 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. But Nadal retrieved one break and he began a seemingly inevitable recovery that culminated with breaking Auger-Aliassime at 4-3 in the second set. Nadal then rode all of his momentum to lead by two sets to one.
Just as it seemed that Nadal was in control, as he has been so many times in similar scenarios over the years, he inexplicably started the fourth set with a flurry of unforced errors. He lost his serve in his opening game, then after immediately retrieving the break he gave it up again with more poor forehand errors.
While Nadal struggled, Auger-Aliassime remained focused on his own intentions. As with his excellent start, he peppered Nadal with a couple of well-timed drop shots, he continued to look for forehands to dominate with and he was supreme at the net. For his mentality and application, he was rewarded with a fifth set.
Emboldened by his own play, Auger-Aliassime started the final set by saving a break point with a bold forehand winner. He continued to push himself to the limit, continually closing down the net and making incredibly difficult volleys. But Nadal made his move at 4-3, completely elevating his level by attacking returns and pushing to the net, and after pushing hard to create an opportunity, he chased down a good drop volley, slipping a backhand into the open court. After alternating between chants for the two players all match, the crowd finished cheering for one man.
After a heartbreaking quarter-final defeat against Daniil Medvedev in Melbourne this year, Auger-Aliassime leaves Paris with a great outlook. His 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 the 36-year-old 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. He arrives in the quarter-final in as good shape as he could hope for. After winning the Italian Open in his last outing before the French Open, the top seed has not dropped a set in his four rounds this year.
“I’m glad that I didn’t spend too much time on the court myself up to quarter-finals, knowing that, playing him in Roland Garros is always a physical battle, along with everything else,” Djokovic, who beat Nadal in the semi-finals last year, said. “It’s a huge challenge and probably the biggest one you can have here in Roland Garros. I’m ready for it.”