Rafa Nadal – Living the Dream

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Photo by Getty

Bill Simons

Paris

REAL MADRID – REAL RAFA: Rafa watchers were worried. In order to get to the most hyped match of the French Open, a quarterfinal showdown with his prime rival Novak Djokovic, Nadal would have to get past the rising phenom, the No. 9 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime. 

The Canadian, who is coached by none other than Rafa’s uncle Toni, almost certainly had shared some secrets about Nadal’s magic. Plus Rafa, who is Spain’s most famous soccer fan, went to the Champions League final where his beloved Real Madrid narrowly beat Liverpool. Would attending the tense late night-match somehow drain Rafa?

Early in his fourth round meeting with Felix, Rafa seemed unsettled, flat-footed, error prone and hardly powerful. As the Canadian prevailed 6-3, Radio Roland Garros asked, “My word. What are we seeing from Rafa? No rhythm, no flow.” 

But there’s no greater battler in tennis than Senor Nadal. Rafa promptly cut down on his errors, upped his aggression and began to dictate matters to capture the next two sets. 

But then inexplicably errors creeped back into Nadal’s game. The King of Clay seemed like a commoner. FAA served boldly, moved like a gazelle and unleashed one wicked drop shot after another. His forehand pushed Rafa back and the Canadian forced a fifth set and Toni Nadal left his courtside seat. 

Amazingly in Nadal’s 111 previous Roland Garros matches only John Isner in 2011 and Novak Djokovic in 2013 had taken Nadal to five sets.  

As Parisian temperatures dropped the on-court action heated up. Clearly Auger-Aliassime was no longer the raw talent who had lost nine straight times in tour finals. Winning this year in Rotterdam changed that. Plus, he showed his mettle in pushing Daniil Medvedev to five sets in the Australian Open quarterfinal. In the first round he avoided disaster by coming back from two sets down. And early in the fifth one sensed that the younger, taller, faster athlete had the momentum against a beloved, but aging legend.

But a big sign in the stadium reads, “Victory belongs to the most tenacious.” And as chilly fans chanted “Rafa, Rafa, Rafa,” the Spaniard displayed both his tenacity and his uncanny ability to pounce. He blasted an overhead, flicked a forehand winner and sprinted to a deft Felix volley and somehow managed to dink a backhand to the open court to score a decisive break. It was electrifying. Somehow the master inevitably finds his way in this place.

Now, with new balls, we saw an old story. Ater 4:21 the 13-time French Open champ hit a forehand to an open court to score his 109th Roland Garros victory. Now 3-0 in French Open five-setters, Rafa will have to quickly recover. He will come into his 59th meeting with Djokovic on Tuesday with a 19-8 winning record on clay. 

But the Serbian is No. 1 and surging. He won the Italian Open and is on an almost breathless nine-match winning streak. Last year, en route to the title, he came from behind in the semis to beat Rafa in four sets. 

The Tuesday renewal of tennis’ greatest active rivalry should be a glorious battle. For his part, Nadal was modest. He told the crowd that “it is magical for me to play here” and told the media, “I cannot complain…I didn’t know I would be here two weeks ago..Any match can be my last at Roland Garros…I am just trying to keep living the dream.”

GREAT AMERICAN NEWS: Five American women – Jessica Pegula, Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff, Madison Keys and Amanda Anisimova –  reached the fourth round in Paris. Today, despite her great power, young Amanda Anisimova again lost to the even younger Leylah Fernandez, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. On a brighter side, No. 18 seed Gauff equaled her 2021 run here in Paris when she used her athleticism to down Belgium’s Elise Mertens, the No. 31 seed. And Stephens easily dismissed the Swiss lefty Jil Teichmann, dropping just two games. Like she did at last year’s US Open, Sloane will now face Gauff in the quarters on Tuesday. Tomorrow No. 11 seed Pegula, the highest seed left besides No. 1 Iga Swiatek, will play Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu and Keys will face Russian Veronika Kudermetova.

NEWS FLASH: Prohibitive favorite Iga Swiatek actually lost eight games while beating Danka Kovinic. Oh well, since February she’s won 31 straight matches and next plays the 19-year-old Chinese phenom Qinwen Zheng. Martina Navratilova won 74 straight matches. 

MARTINA II: Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis have, between them, won 23 singles majors. Another Martina, Martina Trevisan, has reached the quarterfinals. And yes she was named after Navratilova.

OSAKA’S SCARE: While attending a boxing bout at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Naomi Osaka got involved with a crowd that feared there was an active shooting. There wasn’t one. Still Osaka wrote to her 1.1 million twitter followers, “I was just in the Barclays center and suddenly I heard shouting and saw people running, then we were being yelled at that there was an active shooter and we had to huddle in a room and close the doors, I was so f***** petrified man.”

Buffalo native Jesse Pegula “devastated emotionally” by the mass murder in her home town that killed 10. When Andy Murray was in fifth grade he ducked under a desk to survive a mass murderer who killed 17. Britain soon passed a gun control law that has virtually eliminated mass murder and Martina Narvatilova noted that Australia did the same thing.

Mick North, whose five-year old daughter died in Dunblane, reflected on the Texas mass killing telling the Daily Express in the UK: “It doesn’t come as a surprise any longer because it just happens too often. I thought as soon as people know what happened in Britain, and what changes were brought about as a result of our children dying, that there’d be a rush not necessarily to enact the same kind of legislation but at least to try to fight for gun laws. But it’s just never happened.” 

A HANDFUL OF IDIOTS: The other night Alize Cornet was cheered mightily after narrowly beating Jelena Ostapenka in a raucous match. But after withdrawing mid-match against Qinwin Zheng down 0-6, 0-3, she was booed off the court. The 32-year-old French tennis hero who just wrote her second book confided, “Yes, it hurt more than my injury….it’s really too much when you see everything I’ve been giving…for so many years. It would have been far easier for me not to come on court…[and] make myself vulnerable …It’s unfair and when things are unfair it hurts…this handful of idiots really, really, really makes you feel bad.

JUST WONDERING: There are four Russians remaining in Paris in singles: Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, Daria Kasatkina and Veronika Kudermetova. What will be the ramifications be if one of them end up winning the title, if any?

GO FIGURE: In recent years, some of the last American men standing at Roland Garros included Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul and Seb Korda. This year it was Mackie McDonald who fell in the third round, despite having six set points in the second set of his match against Jannik Sinner.

CALIFORNIAN NCAA SHORTFALL: Stanford’s shining freshman star Connie Mar and the University of San Diego’s August Holmgren, both fell in the NCAA finals championships. 

ONE DEGREE OF FEDERARIAN SEPARATION: Nicholas Godsick, the son of former WTA star Mary Joe Fernandez and Roger’s Federer’s superstar agent Tony Godsick, is in the junior draw. By the way, there’s celebration on The Farm. Word is that Nico has reportedly verbally committed to Stanford. 

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