Third set: Djokovic 5-6, 6-3, 3-6 Nadal* (* denotes server): Djokovic exchanges words with his team in the stands as he goes down 30-15. Whatever they said, it helped – he gets to 30-40 before a huge overhead from Nadal makes it deuce. Amazingly, after all this, they’re separated by just one point at this stage 100-99. Then a breathtaking rally with both men scurrying about the court ends in Djokovic’s favour and we have another deuce. Nadal goes on to hold prompting several well-deserved cries of “Vamos!”
Just in case you’re wondering how tough it is to push Nadal at the French Open:
Third set: *Djokovic 5-5, 6-3, 3-6 Nadal (* denotes server): Novak moves Nadal this way and that before steering a volleyed winner to take the first point of the game. His 18th unforced error of the set (to Djokovic’s six) takes us to 30-0. But suddenly it’s Rafa Time! A lovely backhand brings up 30-30. Then a stunning forehand gets him break point at 30-40. A vicious forehand that’s too hot for Djokovic to handle and Nadal has broken! And I’m not the only one enjoying this:
Third set: Djokovic 5-4, 6-3, 3-6 Nadal* (* denotes server): Both men are well into their mid-30s and they’re still hitting it as hard as they were in their mid-20s. Just to prove the theory, Djokovic does the splits as he hits a booming backhand down the line. He holds and Djokovic will serve for the set.
Third set: *Djokovic 5-3, 6-3, 3-6 Nadal (* denotes server): The first mistake I can remember Djokovic making in a while comes at 30-0 letting Rafa back into the game ever so slightly. Then another very small one as he clips the net takes the game to 30-40. He then batters a forehand at Nadal, who cannot muster a return and we’re at deuce. Nadal winds up a huge forehand when it’s advantage to Djokovic but after a check from the umpire it’s declared out. What a hold from Djokovic.
Third set: Djokovic 4-3, 6-3, 3-6 Nadal* (* denotes server): Djokovic has made zero (0) unforced errors this set after six in the first and three in the second. And that perhaps explains why he breaks again. Rafa is having to go out and win every single point.
Third set: *Djokovic 3-3, 6-3, 3-6 Nadal (* denotes server): This may just be me but Nadal has looked slightly below his very best tonight and he’s been sweating even more than usual (which is a lot) – or maybe Djokovic hasn’t allowed him to be. He calls for extra water and more towels before he heads back on to court.
At 15-30 Novak approaches the net and Rafa’s shot pings off the netcord, sending his opponent off balance and making it 15-40. Rafa hits the net on his first chance to break and then Novak finishes a 23-shot rally with a skidding forehand to take us to deuce. But Rafa hits back to bring up another break point! Which he gets, ushering a shot down the line. What a game! What a match!
Third set: Djokovic 3-2, 6-3, 3-6 Nadal* (* denotes server): Now then, an unforced error from Nadal – they’re starting to creep ever so slightly into his game – gives Djokovic two break points. Rafa saves the first with a drop shot that Novak can’t quite get back over the net. Then it’s an ace to get to deuce – he’s hit four this match and they’ve all come at crucial junctures. But a backhand goes long and Djokovic his third chance to break this game. And he takes it!
Third set: *Djokovic 2-2, 6-3, 3-6 Nadal (* denotes server): Novak has a good, long stare at his opponent to start the game before unleashing a serve that Rafa can barely handle. Djokovic holds to love – he made plenty of unforced errors at the start of this match, but has given his opponent virtually nothing since. Each man has won 76 points in this match.
Third set: Djokovic 1-2, 6-3, 3-6 Nadal* (* denotes server): The last live sporting event I covered was Logan Paul v Floyd Mayweather, so I’m used to two incredible athletes battling at the highest possible level. And what a fine thought that Floyd Mayweather will earn about $40m more for beating his opponent than whoever wins this one.
Anyway, back to the tennis. A whizzing crosscourt forehand – almost as devastating as Logan Paul’s left hook – gets us to 30-30. Then Djokovic’s 10th break point of the match comes up – it’s saved by Rafa, who kicks a serve out wide before finishing it off with a winner past an out of position Novak. There’s another chance for Novak though after Rafa tries maybe too hard to stay on his forehand and sends a shot into the net. He saves that one after he batters Novak into submission with a battery of forehands. He finally sees it out – an epic hold from Rafa just as his opponent was threatening to fundamentally shift the balance of this match.
Third set: *Djokovic 1-1, 6-3, 3-6 Nadal (* denotes server): The TV graphic showed Novak did well in keeping things away from Nadal’s all-world forehand in the second set. Rafa only hit 45% of his shots off that wing in the second compared to the majority (code for I didn’t see the exact percentage) in the first. So there you go: to beat Nadal just don’t hit it to his forehand. I’ll try it next time I play him, should work a charm. A simple enough hold for Djokovic.
Third set: Djokovic 0-1, 6-3, 3-6 Nadal* (* denotes server): Hoo hoo! This is fun. Not that the fans courtside may see it – they have to leave the stadium in two hours because of Covid protocols. But, as Parisians are a laidback bunch who definitely like being told what to do, I’m sure it will go off with a minimum of fuss. Rafa was off court during the break, I’m not sure what for, but he seems to be moving well enough. Maybe it was a bathroom break? He also changed his shorts but let’s not go too far down the road of speculation on that subject or some unpleasant mental images could come up.
Anyway, whatever happened Rafa seems to be doing fine and holds to 15. The best answer after Novak’s fine comeback in the second set.
Djokovic wins the second set 6-3!
Djokovic serves for the set. Not something I’d have thought I’d be writing when he was 0-5 down in the first. He starts with a huge forehand on a ball that sits up nicely for him. Nadal makes it 15-30 with a lovely dipping backhand to win a point it looked like he would lost when Djokovic had him scurrying around court, and soon we’re at 30-40. Rafa thinks he’s won it with a backhand down the line but it drifts just out. A mis-hit forehand from Rafa then seals the set for Novak. What a comeback!
Second set: Djokovic 5-3, 3-6 Nadal* (* denotes server): Nadal was talking to the doctor and trainer at the break between games but it’s unclear what he was asking about. Maybe the Turkey-Italy score (joke is on him – it hasn’t started yet). I’ll keep you updated if I find out more. Anyway, he’s serving to stay in the set. And guess what? He does.
Second set: *Djokovic 5-2, 3-6 Nadal (* denotes server): Novak keeps trying the drop shot and keeps on failing. I’m not sure why he persists – unless he’s playing a very long game and trying to wear Rafa out. A bad unforced error (are there any good ones?) from Novak sends us to 15-40. Talking of terrible shots – Nadal hits a home run ball of a backhand waaaay long and we’re at deuce. Novak looks like he’s about to bring up advantage but he sends a simple volley – with the court gaping open – into the net. He holds in the end but only just.
Second set: Djokovic 4-2, 3-6 Nadal* (* denotes server): And we continue on serve. Novak can console himself that he’s much better than when he was 0-5 down in the first set. A lovely backhand winner – his fifth of the match – gets him to 15-0 and another backhand sets up a volley for 0-30. No doubt the match has been pretty even after that opening blip from Djokovic. Before we know it, Novak has made it 0-40 – he clearly isn’t going to throw this so he can get back to his house and catch the second-half of Turkey v Italy at the Euros. Speaking of which:
Rafa causes a few wobbles for Novak as he brings it back to 30-40 but the Serb seals it next point to break.
Second set: Djokovic 2-2, 3-6 Nadal* (* denotes server): Breaking Nadal at the French Open must be a fine feeling. Immediately getting broken back, not so much. There’s basically zero Kelvins room for error if you’re playing Rafa at the French Open so that blip in the last game was not good (although Rafa hit some fantastic shots so it’s tough to blame Novak completely). Novak roars in frustration as he nets to give Rafa the hold. You can understand how he feels. Or maybe you can’t if you’ve never played in a grand slam semi-final.
Second set: *Djokovic 2-1, 3-6 Nadal (* denotes server): Right. “Enough of that comeback nonsense***,” says Nadal. He streaks to 0-40 and then seals the game with a scorching forehand down the line. That was so fast I missed the first few points while I looked for some interesting stats on Twitter, so I didn’t need to bother calculating any myself. That’ll teach me.
***He may not have literally said this.
Second set: Djokovic 2-0, 3-6 Nadal* (* denotes server): The mini Djokonaissance continues as Novak races out to a 0-40 lead. Nadal saves the first one with a filthy drop shot that Novak can only grin at. Or maybe he was grinning because he knew what was coming next – a wide forehand from Nadal that seals the break. Things just got (more) interesting.
Second set: *Djokovic 1-0, 3-6 Nadal (* denotes server)
A welcome, early hold for Djokovic to start the second. It’s to love too.
Arun Narayanan writes in: “An interesting question to ponder is what type of a player can defeat Nadal at the French Open?” um… one that doesn’t exist? “I know Djokovic defeated Nadal once, but something was obviously wrong there since Nadal didn’t win even win a set and lost the last one 1-6. I suggest that you cannot outslug Nadal at the French Open; so, Djokovic’s usual style arguably works against him. You need someone who plays really aggressively, someone who can hit really aggressively, strong, and fast. That is, someone who can hit through him and paint the lines. Someone like Thiem who at least managed to take a set off him. Or, someone like Soderling who won. Someone like Wawrinka could have done it maybe. Of course, easier said than done, unless Nadal is not fully fit, as in his two losses here. After all, Federer never quite managed anything more than taking an odd set or two, even when Nadal was a 19-year-old kid.”
Nadal wins the first set 6-3!
A second chance for Nadal to clinch the set on his serve. This time things are much easier, the highlight being what I can only describe as a half-volley at the net that turns into a lob: too good for Novak, too good for anyone (which is obvious because if Djokovic couldn’t return that, who could?). Rafa nearly seals the set with another lob but it goes just long – Rafa perhaps guilty of a little bit of showboating there. And it costs him because Djokovic takes the next point and we’re at deuce. Or costs him for a while because Nadal wins the set not long afterwards.
Novak showed just enough towards the end of the set to show he can hurt Rafa. The bad news? Rafa has never lost at the French Open after winning the first set.
First set: *Djokovic 3-5 Nadal (* denotes server): Novak takes the momentum from that break and … loses his first two service points. A nice recovery to take it to 30-30 though, the second point coming from his first ace of the match. Rafa then brings up break point but a tough forehand from Novak saves it – and the Spaniard taps his racket to acknowledge a fine shot. Novak holds – it would have been pretty dispiriting to have broken then immediately have been broken back.
I wonder what other grand slams do when they’re not hosting and no one cares about them? Looks like they just tweet about the other ones.
First set: Djokovic 2-5 Nadal* (* denotes server): And Rafa serves for the set. Some good news for Novak as he takes the first two points, the second courtesy of the net cord. You can tell things are looking up for Djokovic when a drop shot actually works – Nadal can’t get anywhere near it. Rafa wrongfoots his opponent to save the first break point before a long forehand takes us to deuce. Rafa then drops a double fault for the break. Nadal will still probably win this set but some consolation for Novak as he shows there are ways of hurting the champ.
First set: *Djokovic 1-5 Nadal (* denotes server): Some relief for Novak! And some relief for those of us who want to see something resembling a contest. No bagel for Novak as a forehand into the net gives him his first game of the match.
First set: Djokovic 0-5 Nadal* (* denotes server): This is very simple for Rafa at the moment: he doesn’t need do too much except play competently and wait for Novak’s mistakes. Another comfortable hold for the reigning champion.
First set: *Djokovic 0-4 Nadal (* denotes server): Novak’s first two first serves are long and he follows them up with forehands that have a little too much on them to give Rafa a 0-30 advantage – his ninth point in a row. A very poor forehand dumped into the net gives Nadal the game. Rafa is tough enough on clay when you’re playing well, but when you’re giving him points…
First set: Djokovic 0-3 Nadal* (* denotes server): While Djokovic has struggled for the most part with his drop shot, Nadal is definitely not. He wafts one just over the net, it hits the cord on the way over, to reach 40-0. An easy hold, much more comfortable than his opening service game.
First set: *Djokovic 0-2 Nadal (* denotes server): Another deuce game! It looks like it’s drifting towards an easy Novak hold until a scorching 100mph winner from Nadal sends us to 40-30 and injects a bit of pep into proceedings. Novak then tries a drop shot that isn’t good enough for Rafa who anticipates and dinks a forehand past the Serb to bring up break point. He seals the break at the first opportunity.
So, two deuce games to start the match. Looks like we’re going past curfew!
First set: Djokovic 0-1 Nadal* (* denotes server): And Rafa will serve first. And does: not the greatest of starts as he dumps his first serve into the net and then sends a forehand long to to gift the first point to his opponent. Then a lovely little rally with Novak fending all sorts of Rafa forehands at the net before his opponent wears him down to go to 30-15. But Novak battles back to bring up the first break point of the match – in the first game. Rafa saves with a serve but a whipped forehand from Novak brings up another opportunity to break and another ace from Rafa to save it! A brilliant display of nerveless tennis from Rafa there to hit those two aces when he needed them most. A great drop shot from Djokovic looks like it’s set up a chance at a break point but he slams an easy overhead long and the next point seals the game for Nadal.
Because of Covid restrictions, the crowd need to leave in just over three hours if the match is still going on. It happened in Djokovic’s last match, where the crowd booed as they were turfed out. I’m sure they’ll be pleased if they are asked to leave at two-sets all. Maaaaybe they should have put this match on first – with all due respect to Zverev and Tsitsipas.
Djokovic has beaten Nadal here before and not that long ago – in 2015 in the quarter-finals (on the Spaniard’s birthday too). Djokovic didn’t even need to break too much of a sweat that day, beating Rafa in straight sets. Of course, Djokovic went on to lose to Stan Wawrinka in the final but he’ll be trying to visualise that quarter-final win as he steps out on to court today.
The winner of this evening’s match will play Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final. He’s just beaten in five sets, which I am legally obliged to call an “epic”. Here’s what the 22-year-old had to say after reaching his first grand slam final.
“All I can think of is my roots, where I came from,” he says, after becoming the first Greek player to reach a grand slam final. “My dream was to play here, to play on the big stage of the French Open some day. I would have never thought that I would.”
And so here we are – the inevitable final, except it’s the semi-final. The five-setter in the other semi-final means we’re starting a tad later that expected – bad news for Novak and Rafa if they wanted to tuck into a spot of Turkey v Italy in the Euros, but there you go.
Novak leads this pair’s head-to-head meetings but only just – 29-28. It’s a different story on clay though, where Rafa, as you may expect holds a 19-7 advantage.
Nadal is the favourite here but as this article on the ATP site details, his opponent has been better in pressure situations at this year’s tournament. Novak has saved 86% of break points he’s faced, while Rafa’s rate is surprisingly low at 50%. It’s a similar story in break points converted, where Novak has the edge 63% to 49.3%. And then it’s been a pretty good week for Serbian sports superstars with Nikola Jokic winning the NBA’s most valuable player award. And if that sounds like I’m clutching at straws in search of signs of an upset, it’s because I am.