Moreover, Nadal’s dominance at Roland Garros has been more comprehensive than any player has experienced in modern times at a major. He took the title here in Paris the first four times he played the tournament (2005-2008), was beaten in the round of 16 in 2009 by Robin Soderling, but had not lost since. Not only was he in full pursuit of a tenth crown at Roland Garros, but he was going after a sixth title in a row. Given those extraordinary circumstances, no wonder some observers maintained that Nadal would hold back Djokovic today and then win two more matches to claim a 15th career Grand Slam singles championship.
Novak Djokovic was well aware of Nadal’s historical hold on this tournament, and it occurred to me as I watched him dissect Nadal 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 that he realized how crucial it would be to fully control his emotions, to not be overly demonstrative in either a positive or negative direction, to remain relatively subdued and dignified at all times. He was not simply playing Rafael Nadal in a quarterfinal contest at a major; Djokovic was fighting a cherished rival who had beaten him a total of six times at the French Open. Across the last three years especially, Djokovic had suffered immeasurably at the hands of the Spaniard, losing to Nadal in the 2012 and 2014 finals, falling narrowly short in a five set semifinal epic two years ago against the man universally regarded as the greatest clay court player ever.
Had it not been for Nadal, Djokovic could well have won the French Open at least a couple of times. So Djokovic gathered his resources, showed up for work with the right mindset, and came away with a triumph he thoroughly deserved. The key to the outcome in many ways was in how the first set was settled. Djokovic was masterful, unerring, tactically agile and technically sound in establishing a 4-0 lead. Nadal had not yet round his range, and the Serbian was performing with clinical efficiency and a keen sense of what it would take to gain the upper hand. Djokovic was so sound and his court sense was so impeccable that he seemed entirely capable of taking the set both swiftly and authoritatively.
Djokovic opened with a love game on serve, culminating with an ace out wide at 40-0. He broke Nadal at 15 for 2-0 with a superb forehand down the line that Nadal was unable to counter. Nadal had difficulties off the forehand in the third game, and Djokovic held at 30 with a neatly executed backhand drop shot down the line drawing an error from the Spaniard. On went the Serbian to 4-0 with a break at 15. The last point of that game was stupendous from both competitors, but Djokovic prevailed in the end by chasing down an excellent lob from the Spaniard, and working his way back into the point with an astonishing retrieval. Nadal would lose that point with an errant forehand drop shot, and so Djokovic had captured those first four games by sweeping 16 of 20 points.
To be sure, Nadal was not feeling the ball well and his discomfort was almost unmistakable. But here he showed the size of his heart and the depth of his ambition. Djokovic was serving at 4-0, 30-30, and he approached the net on the Nadal backhand. The Spaniard was stretched out decidedly on that side, but he made a sparkling passing shot down the line and then broke serve on the next point as Djokovic drove a forehand long. Nadal was buoyed by that breakthrough, and then held at 15 for 2-4 with a patented forehand winner set up by a wide serve. Now Djokovic was serving into the sun and feeling the heat of Nadal’s markedly improved play. Djokovic rallied from 15-40 and saved three break points, but Nadal was unwavering in his onslaught and unrelenting on defense as well. On his fourth break point, Nadal chased down a penetrating forehand down the line from Djokovic, sending back a low slice off the forehand. Djokovic was not sure if Nadal would take off for the open court, but the Spaniard stayed home and the distracted Serbian bungled an easy forehand into the net.
Nadal had improbably erased both service breaks against him. He enjoyed an outstanding game on his own delivery to reach 4-4, holding at love, serving two aces and releasing a service winner in that gem of a game. The Spaniard had secured four games in a row. He was inspired, raising his level of play steadily, and giving the capacity crowd in Philippe Chatrier Stadium an awful lot to shout about. Many of them sensed that Nadal was going to steal the set from Djokovic. But the world No. 1 had entirely different notions. There was not even the slightest hint of trepidation from the tournament favorite. He may not have liked what had transpired, but he dealt with the circumstances admirably and professionally. At 4-4, he held at love with a trademark inside out forehand winner. Djokovic had moved ahead 5-4 on serve, with absolutely no hesitation.
In the following game, Nadal’s steadfast qualities as a competitor were showcased gloriously. Thrice he was down set point as he served at 4-5, but he played all three courageously. At 30-40, Nadal came forward behind a booming forehand, eliciting a lob from Djokovic that carried long off the backhand. On the second set point against him, Nadal produced a scintillating backhand drop shot winner down the line. And on the last one, Nadal released another terrific drop shot off the backhand that Djokovic could not get back into play. Nadal held on for 5-5 with a tremendous service winner down the T at 202 kilometers. Once more, Djokovic refused to lose his composure or wander away from his winning patterns. He held at 15, opening up the court with a wide serve, following with a forehand winner crosscourt. It was 6-5 for the Serbian.
Yet Nadal’s spunk and spontaneity were not gone. At 5-6, 30-40, he erased a fourth set point against him. Djokovic rolled a topspin lob crosscourt off the forehand, and Nadal clipped the net cord slightly with his winning smash. Djokovic advanced to a fifth set point with a backhand drop shot opening up an avenue for a backhand volley winner, but Nadal remained unshakable. A 203 kilometer first serve down the T drew a netted forehand return from Djokovic. The Serbian captured the next point with an overhead winner, garnering a sixth set point. This one he converted despite the right tactics from the Spaniard, who swung a first serve wide in the ad court, and then approached on the Djokovic forehand. Djokovic knew he did not have a clear opening for a winning passing shot on the run, so he judiciously sent his forehand low crosscourt, making Nadal play a tough, low volley. The Spaniard went for the backhand drop volley but sent it wide. After 68 arduous minutes and a stirring comeback from Nadal, Djokovic had stymied the Spaniard with persistence, greater depth and weight of shot, and immense poise under pressure.
Both men performed impressively through the early stages of the second set. Djokovic took 12 of 15 points on serve while Nadal went 12 for 16 on his delivery, and so the score was locked at 3-3. Nadal was coaxing some errors off the Djokovic backhand down the line with the severity of his topspin forehand. Although it was not a hot day, the sun was shining brightly and Nadal’s shots were bounding high. Yet Djokovic kept driving through the ball with his flatter ground game, and he was so solid from the backcourt that he forced the Spaniard to take some chances that perhaps he would rather not have done. At 3-3, Djokovic held at love, producing a pair of winning volleys in that game.
Nadal fully understood that he could not afford any ineptitude now. Serving at 3-4, he had no margin for error left. At 30-40, he saved a break point and then went to game point, but Djokovic got back to deuce, rushing the Spaniard into an error with a sizzling service return taken remarkably early. Nadal now pressed off the forehand, missing his renowned inside out shot off that side. It was break point again for Djokovic. He got around for an inside out forehand, and Nadal was pressured into a forehand mistake. That lifted Djokovic to 5-3. He was serving for the set. The Serbian surged to 40-15, with two set points in hand, but missed a backhand down the line as he went for the winner. Nadal’s return was very short at 40-30 but Djokovic’s approach shot was not struck with enough force. Nadal had time to line up a low passing shot to win the point. Djokovic soon garnered a third set point, but made an apprehensive unforced error.
Djokovic seemed to be displaying frailty here, but instead he revealed the instincts and gumption of a champion. At deuce, he served-and-volleyed behind a second delivery, and Nadal’s backhand down the return was letter perfect. It landed at the feet of the incoming Djokovic, who proceeded to play an immaculate backhand half volley, angling his shot short crosscourt for a winner at that propitious moment. Now at set point for the fourth time, Djokovic directed an inside out forehand nice and low, and Nadal had no answer. The Serbian had sealed the set after much consternation, coming through 6-3.
Djokovic is the best front runner in the game today, and one of the finest in the Open Era. He was not going to lose this match from such a commanding position, not even against the ever dangerous and determined Nadal, as tough a competitor as I have yet witnessed. Nadal recognized precisely what he was up against. Down break point in the opening game of the third set, he released an overhead crosscourt that Djokovic managed to get back in play off the backhand. Nadal was poised for the winning high volley but missed flagrantly. He could not conceal his agitation after that botched play. Djokovic had the break for 1-0, and never looked back.
At 40-30 in the second game, Djokovic cracked an inside out forehand swing volley, read Nadal’s response, and drove a forehand winner into a vacant space. Djokovic had moved briskly to 2-0. Nadal could feel the match slipping rapidly away from him. He double faulted to start the third game and then Djokovic unleashed a pair of forehand winners for 0-40. Nadal saved two break points, but a let cord winner off the forehand made it 3-0 for Djokovic. He served an ace down the T for a 40-30 lead in the next game, and once more a forehand let cord winner went his way. Nadal—buoyed by an ace at 30-30—held on for 1-4, but Djokovic was unstoppable. He held at love for 5-1 and then broke at love on a Nadal double fault. On a run of eight consecutive points, Djokovic had completed his task with utter assurance.
And so the Serbian has closed the gap in his much heralded rivalry with Nadal to 23-21 for the Spaniard. Djokovic has won six of their last seven meetings, but this was his first head to head triumph over Nadal at a Grand Slam event since their final round duel at the Australian Open in 2012. Djokovic came out on top there in five hours and fifty three minutes after five pulsating sets. His win here at Roland Garros marked the first time he had ever defeated Nadal in straight sets at a major tournament.
Nadal, of course, was celebrating his 29th birthday as he lost this contest to Djokovic. He came into this event seeded sixth but ranked seventh in the world. He figures to soon fall out of the top ten. But the Spaniard hardly played during the second half of 214 and missed the entire summer with a wrist injury, including the U.S. Open. He will surely work hard to return to the top five by the end of the year, which he could well do with solid results over the rest of the season.
Has Nadal moved permanently past his prime? I suspect he has, but I am convinced he will make a strong comeback in 2016. It would not surprise me in the least if he reclaimed his French Open crown next year. As for Djokovic, he has some very important business to address over the next several days. On Friday, he faces Andy Murray in the penultimate round. Djokovic holds an 18-8 career lead in his series with Murray, and has upended the British competitor the last seven times they have clashed, including the final of the Australian Open this year. Murray has not lost on clay this season, recording tournament victories in Munich and Madrid. This is his third appearance in the semifinals of the French Open.
Murray will not make it easy for Djokovic on Friday and he has the endurance, court coverage and fierce determination to turn this battle into something titanic. But I still like Djokovic’s chances in that appointment. If he wins, he would face either Stan Wawrinka or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Sunday in the final, and would be a considerable favorite. Djokovic has never been better prepared for a French Open. He played only Monte Carlo and Rome on his way to this theater, and won both events. He has not lost a set in his five matches, so he is bound to have an abundance of emotional energy left for the homestretch.
The feeling grows that Novak Djokovic is going to realize one of his greatest goals and become only the eighth man ever to win sweep the four majors in a career, joining Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, and Nadal in that elite category. Djokovic’s triumph over Nadal should fuel him with supreme conviction. Djokovic surely believes that if he can topple Nadal on this court, no one should prevent him from winning the tournament.