On Friday, just before Rafael Nadal walked out of Court Philippe-Chatrier, he left with a promise.
“I am going to be focused and try my best. The only thing I can guarantee is that I am going to fight until the end,” he had said.
And he did. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, as May turned to June, Nadal grunted, sprinted, retrieved, and then defeated World No 1 Novak Djokovic 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4) in the French Open quarterfinal.
There were no signs of the foot injury the 35-year-old had talked about numerous times – at least, he didn’t show that he was in pain. His movement across court was swift and unhindered. And his groundstrokes were at their menacing best despite the match being played on a cool Parisian night, when conditions are deemed too heavy for the Spaniard to impart his ruthless top spin.
At the other end of the court though was an out-of-sorts Djokovic. He had his moments on the night, fought till the end to save match points, but admittedly was not quite at his best consistently enough.
It took four hours and 12 minutes to complete the quarterfinal match – the 59th meeting between two of the greatest in the game.
Here’s how the match panned out:
Nadal’s aggressive intent
On paper, Nadal has been a strong defensive baseline players most of his career. He’s a player who likes to play the safer shots, use his remarkable stamina and grit to tire out opponents in a rally before shifting a gear and finishing the point. Against Djokovic though, just as he did in the final of the 2020 French Open, Nadal was aggressive from the get-go.
His groundstrokes packed a bigger punch than usual and were more often than not aimed at angles that would make it difficult for any opponent to retrieve.
In the third and fourth set, he moved up the court after the return of serve, stayed close to the baseline to take away time from Djokovic to load and play the next shot. By the end of the match, he had cracked 57 winners to the Serbian’s 48.
This tactic was helped, especially in the first set, by the fact that Djokovic had been rather passive in his approach. He did become more attacking in the second set though, as he started to play his shots earlier and with more speed, not allowing Nadal time – Djokovic’s forehand in the second set was five kmph faster than the first, and Nadal’s pace dropped by eight kmph on the forehand and five kmph on the backhand as per data shown during broadcast.
Djokovic’s wavering serve
The World No 1’s service improved in the second and fourth sets, but he started the match with an unenviable return of just 48% first serves made in the first set (13/27). It went up to 73% (32/44) in the fourth set.
Crucially though, Djokovic was not putting much speed on his second serve – an average of just 143 kmph (Nadal’s was 154). It allowed Nadal the time and opportunity to place his returns to great effect.
Eventually, the Serb could hold just 19 of the 45 second serves he made in the match (42%) while Nadal’s second serve points won was a significantly better 60%.
Djokovic’s unforced error count
The Serbian committed 53 unforced errors in the match. And it’s not surprising since his groundstrokes lacked their usually remarkable consistency.
A part of the reason for his high unforced error count is also Nadal’s impressive defence on the night. The Spaniard was often getting to the sharp-angled drives Djokovic would send across the net, pushing Djokovic to hit closer to the lines, with greater angles to try and get past Nadal. Those low-margin groundstrokes would subsequently cross the line and get called ‘out.’
Djokovic targeting Nadal’s backhand
This was a common trend through most of the match. Nadal, known to have a vicious looping and curling forehand, can use it to devastating effect. But he also has a very solid backhand. Djokovic often aimed at Nadal’s double-hander despite an open court on the other side. And Nadal would use his groundstroke off his right wing to play shots into angles or in the open court to create openings, draw an error or finish a point.
Just as he did at the 2020 French Open final, Djokovic persisted with playing drop shots despite the tactic not working for the majority of the night. The drop shot is used to break rhythm and send the opponent scrambling to the net. Nadal, though, is one of the game’s greatest retrievers. He read Djokovic’s delicate dinks over the net and sent it back with interest. Often though, Djokovic’s attempts crashed into the net, adding to the unforced error count – four times the drop shot hit the net, and he managed to win just two points outright out of 21 attempts.
There were stages in the fourth set when it felt Djokovic was coming back to his best. He led 5-2 at one stage and was serving for the set at 5-3, only to get broken. In the tiebreaker though, Nadal raced away to a 5-1 lead before finally securing the match with a down-the-line backhand winner.
“I had my chances. I had my chances in the fourth (set),” Djokovic said later. “Served for the set, couple set points. Just one or two shots could have taken me into a fifth. Then it’s really anybody’s match.”
“He was just able to take his tennis to another level in those, particularly moments at the beginning of all sets except the fourth…. he showed why he’s a great champion. Staying mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did. Congrats to him and his team. No doubt he deserved it.”
Nadal will next play Alexander Zverev in the semi-final. But now that he’s gotten past his biggest rival, foot injury or not, the Spaniard will have a spring in his step.