The Battle of the Titans

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Paris

In 2006 no one could have imagined it. 

The wide-eyed Spanish teen with the pirate pants and the whiplash forehand would go on to display a bald spot and win a record 21 Slams, while the skinny kid from the Serbian mountains, who was prone to untimely injuries and gave us spot-on imitations, would go on to be considered the greatest player of all time.

These two tennis boys, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, were destined to forge the foremost rivalry in men’s tennis history. Novak led the head-to-head record 30-28, but Rafa was 19-8 on clay, 10-7 in Slams and 7-2 at Roland Garros. Their meeting, said Tim Henman, was the most important of the last ten years. Jason Goodall suggested, “When the draw was made 12 days ago, fate whispered to Rafa, “A storm is brewing.” And Rafa whispered back, without hesitation, “Here, at Roland Garros, I am the storm.” 

Never before had two players with at least 20 Slams each met in a match. This was their tenth French Open meeting. For Novak there was much to play for. He’d lost his chance for history in New York when he fell short of winning a Grand Slam. He’d been kicked out of Australia and seen Rafa pass him in the race for the most Slams.

Rafa, who fell to Novak in their last meeting in the 2021 French Open semis, wanted to avenge his loss to Novak, to retain his official Slam lead and his unofficial title as the king of clay.  

                                       *****

Drums pounded, a DJ’s songs blared, lights flashed, the PA announcer roared. This may have been a quarterfinal, but it had heavyweight sizzle. The sun was dipping and emotions were rising. Then, after ten tense minutes, the man from Serbia dumped a rally backhand into the net and the Spaniard scored a key early break. Nadal then blasted a brilliant down-the-line forehand to score his second break and take a 4-1 lead. Trumpets sounded high in the stadium. The rout was on.

Rafa won the first set 6-2 and raced to a 3-0 second set lead.

Nadal was shouting, “This is my house! Nobody beats me here for two straight years!” This was a Spanish matador showing his full repertoire. He absorbed Novak’s power and gave us a master class in the art of clay court tennis. His forehand found the corners and he kept Nole on his heels. He was brilliant off his second serve. When Novak charged the net, seemingly in command, the Spaniard unleashed a laser cross-court backhand. He moved with ease and seemed a beat ahead of his foe. His shots were heavy – he was light on his feet. The net itself seemed to be on his side.

Novak did finally break and got on the second-set scoreboard when Rafa missed a drop shot. Djokovic at last saw a glimmer of light. He loosened up and began to hit out with a nothing-to-lose abandon. In full flight he seized the initiative in a flash as he won eleven of fourteen points.

Then there was a shocking turn. In a nearly 18-minute game, the king of clay’s game slipped badly, as he suffered one un-Nadalian error after another. His groundies lost pace and were surprisingly errant. Had Djokovic’s punches gotten to the 35-year-old Nadal? On his fifth breakpoint, the surging Nole got the second set back on serve. He howled at the crowd and wrenched the momentum from the Spaniard. His fierce attacks on Nadal’s backhand were paying dividends. His returns of serve were wicked. He hit his targets, his serve picked up and he scored a second break. After 2:15 of battle, the match was even at a set apiece. 

Last year, Nole had lost the first set against Nadal and then roared back to score his shock win. Now in ascendance, Novak seemed to be following the same script.

Rafa took a break off-court and there was still another shift. Nadal’s power topspin forehand again dictated. He reduced his errors. Novak’s return game faltered. An energized Rafa reasserted his dominance and claimed the third set.

But Rafa missed a drop shot and the workmanlike Djokovic broke early in the fourth set, then served brilliantly and raced to a commanding 5-2 fourth-set lead. He had two set points. The battle would go to a fifth set – how appropriate.

But not so fast. Nadal unleashed a barrage of forehands, broke the stunned Novak and forced a tiebreak.

At crunch time, great athletes playing in their favorite arenas step up. Rafa’s forehand hit the lines. He hit a winner off his back foot. He pounced. Djokovic’s forehand, his backhand and his drop shot all went on strike. The Serb bravely managed to save three match points. But it was too little, too late. “In the end,” said Jason Goodall, “the defending champion has run out of ideas.”

But Nadalians have plenty of ideas. With his epic 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) win, Rafa gained two gritty marathon wins that took 8:30 in 48 hours – amazing. He remains on track to win his 14th French Open, his 22nd Slam and even a calendar Slam. Once again  the man has shown us the glory of his will, the power of his singular forehand and his mastery on Court Philippe Chatrier. And perhaps most of all he showed us his perspective. 

He told the media that the match was “one more episode…a classic match.” But that he hadn’t won the tourney, just the right to play in the semi against Alexander Zverev. He added that in the future, if he “didn’t find a solution” to his foot problem, it would be “super difficult to go on.” To Rafa, it doesn’t matter who wins the most Slams and who is considered the GOAT. “Novak, Roger and myself have an incredible story together…We achieved our dreams.”

No kidding.     

COCO TO SEMIS: Before the Coco Gauff vs. Sloane Stephens quarterfinal, historian Richard Evans wrote, “I think Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe would be thrilled to see two American black women playing on Court Phillippe Chatrier at Roland Garros. The paths they trod were not easy but generations later the fruits are there to see.” Sloane Stephens was hoping to get to another French semi, as she did in 2021. But Gauff started fast, rebuffed Stephens’ surges and avenged her loss to Sloane at the US Open to reach her first Grand Slam semi. Gauff, who prevailed despite showing some nerves and hitting too many double faults, will now face the 28-year-old  Martina Trevisan. The Italian, who is No. 59 in the world, upset the hobbled No. 18 seed Leylah Fernandez 6-2, 6-7, 6-3. Few would have predicted a Trevisan-Gauff semi. Fernandez left Roland Garros on crutches.  

ZVEREV DOWNS BOY WONDER: Carlos Alcaraz finally showed his age, while Sascha Zverev showed his mettle. In a thrilling undercard match, the German had jumped out to a two-set lead when tennis’ wonder kid counterattacked. The 19-year-old Spaniard was on a 14-match winning streak. Less than a month ago he’d beaten the 6’ 6” Zverev in altitude to win the Madrid Open. He was the second favorite to win the French title. Although the No. 3 seed, Zverev was under the radar. But he was over the top when he saved a fourth set point and won  6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6. Afterward, he told the crowd that at crunch time he was “shitting in my pants.” He added that he hopes to win the French before Alcaraz starts winning the tournament all the time.

AMERICAN WATCH: Two American doubles teams – Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula and Taylor Townsend and Madison Keys – prevailed, and are through to the quarterfinals and semifinals respectively.

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