Based on the energy on display, volume of the crowd, activity on social media, buzz around the contest, you would think the men's final was played on a Friday instead of a Sunday. Except, this was a semi-final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the French Open. A 58th meeting in the "RAFOLE" rivalry. Djokovic had won 29 of the 57 and on Day 13 at Roland Garros, he made it 30 and it felt like one of the biggest.
Djokovic triumphed 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2 in over four hours to hand Nadal just his third defeat in 108 matches over the course of 16 years at the French Open. The only two players to have beaten the Spaniard before this were Robin Soderling (2009) and Djokovic himself (2015). With the win, Djokovic kept his dream of a 19th major alive and an opportunity to become the first man in over 50 years to win all four Grand Slams twice.
Djokovic would put himself to the test against Stefanos Tsitsipas, in the final, who is fast emerging as one of the best players on clay. Before we get to that stage, a look at the talking points after the Serbian's sensational win against Nadal.
Nadal's errors, double faults rise
Nadal accounted for 55 unforced errors in the match and eight double faults. This was higher than his tournament average of 31 and four respectively. The difference between the two in the unforced error count changed dramatically as the match went on. In the first, both had 12 unforced errors each, it tipped by two points in Djokovic's favour in the second set and by a staggering 13 points in the third set. In the fourth, Nadal reigned in on the mistakes, but it was too late by then.
One major factor was the pressure created by Djokovic. With the Serbian covering the lines, putting on a great defensive show and chasing down repeatedly, Nadal was made to go for the sidelines and baselines a lot more. In the second set, Djokovic switched tactics and made Nadal play more balls on the backhand, the weaker of the two wings, as against the forehand in the first set. In the second, Nadal made seven backhand unforced errors compared to just one on the forehand. In the third set, the World No 3 missed on both sides for a 9-8 ratio.
Beyond the unforced errors and poor serve, Nadal didn't capitalise on glorious opportunities. In a match of numerous turning points and decisive moments, two stood out. These moments are ones that could be construed as the difference makers. Such a moment arrived at 5-6 in the third set with Djokovic on second serve down a set point. The two players played a cagey point which Djokovic won after a well-played drop shot. Through the course of the rally, Nadal was cagey and cautious of his groundstrokes. He opted to keep the rally going with hopes of finding an error. Instead, Djokovic pulled off a gorgeous drop shot that Nadal was unable to pick up.
But arguably the bigger moment or bigger miss arrived in the tiebreak. At 3-4, Nadal played a great half-volley to prolong the point only to squander it with a miserable volley. Usually incredible at the net, Nadal kept the racket face open way too much only to overcook the simple shot and send it long.
Had Nadal made the most of these chances, we might have had a different outcome. But he says that's part of the package. "These kinds of mistakes happen. But if you want to win, you can't make mistakes," the 13-time French Open champion said in the press conference.
Conditions help Djokovic
With Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev going into five sets and just over 3.5 hours, this second semi-final got pushed further. From the scheduled 5.30 PM local time (9 PM IST), it only got underway an hour and half later. The early exchanges were played in front of a bit of sunshine which saw Nadal run off to a 5-0 lead. But as the sun started to dip, the impact of Nadal's whipped forehand reduced.
Additionally, the cooler conditions played a role with the ball not bouncing up as much as it can. The Spaniard said in the press conference, "The conditions were a little bit slower later on. We had been playing when it was warm and high bounces. When we play at night, the situation goes the other way. The ball bounces less, gets less top spin and that's more favourable for him."
Djokovic learned and adapted
It was already visible in the Rome final but today it became clearer: Djokovic had shed the strategy of drop shots on clay against Nadal. In last year's French Open final, Djokovic played plethora of drop shots. In the first two sets, he hit 18 drop shots " four of them in the very first game " with success in 11 of them. But what it ended up doing is impacting his strategy in other departments. Not tonight.
Tonight, Djokovic used his drop shot smartly. At no point was it his go-to shot or something he relied on heavily. The World No 1 stuck to his core competencies " hit well from the back of the court, force the opponent into making mistakes, chase down balls as if his life depended on it and then, if needed, throw in a surprise serve-and-volley or drop shot.
While the title is not decided, the discussions have already begun. To bring the reader up to speed, Roger Federer and Nadal are locked at 20 Grand Slams each with Djokovic on 18. With Nadal out of the picture and Federer pulling out earlier, Djokovic has a fabulous opportunity to reduce the deficit come Sunday.
In Djokovic's path stands first-time finalist Tsitsipas who beat Zverev earlier. The fact that Novak could reduce the deficit on Nadal (and Federer), at his "living room" Slam, helps his credentials for G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) even further. For all we know, we might have 21 Slam winners by end of 2021.