Click here for Part 1.
My mom and I stood in the tunnel just outside the upper seating at Court Philippe-Chatrier. Rafael Nadal and Felix Auger-Aliassime were locked in the initial stages of a fifth set, just the third fifth set Nadal had ever entered in 112 matches at Roland-Garros. My mom, a huge Nadal fan, was very nervous and needed some convincing to walk over to the show court and see if any departing fans were willing to give us their tickets. (May every deity in existence bless the nice man who handed us three tickets on his way out, one of which I quickly handed off to another hopeful fan.) She desperately wanted Nadal to win. I desperately wanted to see Djokovic — who had destroyed Diego Schwartzman earlier in the day — play Nadal for a 59th time in the quarterfinals. We couldn’t sit down until the changeover after the third game. Before the sit-down, more and more people built up in the tunnel. The live scores were a few seconds behind the actual match taking place mere meters away, so we tried to guess who had won points from what the crowd’s cheers sounded like. The nervous energy was through the roof.
Once we sat down, the quality of the fifth set could scarcely have been better. Nadal and Auger-Aliassime traded easy holds at first, then the young Canadian dug in to close out a service game that Nadal dragged to deuce from 40-love down. The ratio of points ended by a winner or forced error to points ended by an unforced error was overwhelmingly high. At 4-3, Nadal broke serve with a trio of winners — a smash, a forehand pass, and a backhand flick hit on the dead run — and one forced error. In the final game, Nadal ascended even further. Down love-15, he crushed a huge second serve down the middle that Auger-Aliassime could barely get a racket on. A volley winner and a forehand screamer down the line followed. On match point, Auger-Aliassime left nothing in the tank, sprinting to retrieve a volley and a dink. His efforts left him sliding out of position, leaving Nadal with a forehand to hit into the open court. The moment seemed to last forever, with Nadal running into position to set up for the shot. He nailed it into the corner and raised his arms as the crowd screamed their relief.
It was an utterly clinical set from Nadal. He hit 15 winners and four unforced errors (he had 13 unforced errors in the fourth set). Auger-Aliassime had reason to feel good about his chances in the fifth — all the momentum was against him at the start of the fourth, but he broke Nadal twice and was unbowed when Nadal fought back to deuce in Auger-Aliassime’s service games after being down 40-love. In the fifth, though, the Canadian was under pressure most of the time. He had a one easy hold in the middle of the set, but couldn’t scratch Nadal’s serve and was pushed to deuce or break point in three service games.
Nadal’s ability to raise his level to meet the demands of a situation is nearly unparalleled. He’s done it dozens of times over the years. Somehow, though, it often feels surprising. There’s the obvious jolt of Nadal drastically improving mid-match, but the unexpectedness goes beyond that. He has a way of looking vulnerable even as he dominates — his record at this tournament, and on clay, should have put the result of the fifth set beyond doubt before it began. Yet there was very real tension during the decider. I felt nervous. The crowd couldn’t decide who to root for, alternately then simultaneously chanting “Rafa!” and “Felix!” Nadal celebrated with prolonged screams more than once. It felt like the match hung in the balance. In reality, though, it didn’t. Nadal had only lost three times at Roland-Garros. He’d won all the five-setters he’d ever played on clay. Every single stat pointed to him winning, and he did just that.
Nadal’s ability to play better with little to no warning is a mystery to me. It probably has something to do with his relentless intensity, though that’s a consistency in his game; it’s not that he starts trying harder, it’s that he starts executing better. He’ll often misplay a fairly big point — say, an early break point, or a deuce point in an important set — but he rarely misses on the most crucial points. Maybe, in convincing himself that every point he plays could be his last, he is able to play like every point could be his last. After this match, he said that his last time playing at Roland-Garros could come at any time. Still, he’s incredibly predictable in his amazing play, even as his future is difficult to extrapolate.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. During the fifth set of the 2017 Australian Open semifinals, Nadal found himself down 3-4, 15-40 against Grigor Dimitrov. Nadal saved the first break point with a clean backhand winner down the line, then romped to net on the second to put away an easy volley. Darren Cahill remarked that we had seen such clutch play from Nadal many times in the past, but it still managed to be surprising.
I met up with a friend from Tennis Twitter after Djokovic-Schwartzman. We talked about the Big Three for a while, and the way they’ve devastated career after career. (I floated the hot take that Murray was a better player than Agassi, which isn’t reflected in their stats due to the fiercer competition Murray consistently had to face.) He mentioned how frustrating it was that people criticized Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet for not winning a major without considering the impossible rivals they were up against. We lamented the “Baby Fed” nickname Gasquet and Dimitrov had to bear. Competing in the Big Three era, we agreed, was a trial by fire. Players would put up career-best performances against them and still lose, possibly even more than once. Of course that shattered careers — how are you supposed to go back to the drawing board when everything goes right and you lose anyway? The pain is too much for most players.
Nadal emerged from his trial by fire with barely a scorch mark. Even when he was losing again and again to Novak Djokovic in 2011, he would talk calmly about how he needed to improve. He seemed to relish each new chance to play the guy even as it looked impossible that he would win. In passages like this, and in his early years on tour, he developed a rarely-seen clutchness, a knowledge of what to do when things got difficult. I knew very well how intelligent and how skilled Nadal was.
Still, I found myself fooled at the end of the match with Auger-Aliassime. I genuinely wasn’t sure he would win. Maybe it was because I was emotionally invested in a potential Nadal-Djokovic clash and I wanted to prepare myself for disappointment, but I think it ran deeper than that. Nadal has this level-raising quality in spades, and yet he has always had doubters. Every year, there’s a group of fans or pundits who decide he isn’t the favorite at Roland-Garros, even when it’s clear as day that he is. Nadal even talks down his own chances, often rightfully, given his chronic injuries. All of this serves to create the impression that despite all his world-beating attributes, there’s something undeniably frail about his success. It sometimes doesn’t feel reliable until he lifts a trophy.
Auger-Aliassime, as well as he played — and he did play well, even at the end; he didn’t make a single unforced error in the last two games of the match — had no chance against the Nadal whirlwind. His serve, which had crashed successfully through the court for large chunks of the match, started to come back consistently deep. Auger-Aliassime directed traffic to Nadal’s backhand, a sound tactic, but saw the Spaniard hit back with angles and pace. Nadal is not a machine, but he played like one at the end of this match. It was a shade away from perfect tennis. Auger-Aliassime played one of the best matches of his life, and he lost. Nadal has done this to countless players, including Djokovic (Djokovic!) early in their careers. There was no reason to be surprised, yet after the match, I was exhilarated, as if something special or unprecedented had happened. Really, the outcome we got was the most likely one, but it didn’t feel that way at the time.
Nadal always leaves his lockdown mode quickly. Once his final forehand flew past Auger-Aliassime, he raised his arms briefly, then had an amicable exchange with his defeated foe at net. Minutes after that, he was chatting peacefully with Alex Corretja during the post-match interview. Nadal’s intensity was totally gone, replaced by the consistent platitudes he gives the press. He courteously complimented Auger-Aliassime. Asked about his upcoming match with Djokovic, he simply assured the crowd he would fight until the last ball.
This is Nadal’s thing. The narrative is simply that he fights, but he fights well, he fights intelligently. His intensity is always the same, yet his level rises on demand. We’ve known this for years, as Nadal does his thing time and again, yet we can never take him for granted. Maybe because he himself doesn’t.
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