Photo : Martin Sidorjak
Facing Rafael Nadal on Court Philippe-Chatrier at Roland-Garros may be the toughest test in all of sport.
While Félix Auger-Aliassime likely knew that heading into his fourth-round clash with the King of Clay at the 2022 French Open, it was still a lesson he learned the hard way as he fell to the 13-time champion in five sets.
Despite giving the King of Clay all he could handle and becoming just the third man at Roland-Garros, and sixth overall on clay, to push Nadal to five sets, Auger-Aliassime ultimately could not complete the upset, falling 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.
Saving 16 of 22 break points on his serve was not enough, as Auger-Aliassime committed 54 unforced errors to just 50 winners. Nadal was far cleaner, limiting his error count to 41 while striking 47 winners. The Spaniard also fed on his opponent’s second serve, winning 53 percent of those points.
Nadal looked ready to assert his dominance early in the match when he held three break points in the third game, but was unable to convert. Auger-Aliassime quickly turned the tables, taking advantage of an uncharacteristically error-filled game from the Spaniard to break in the next game.
One game later, Nadal had a chance to break back, moving ahead love-40, but Auger-Aliassime came up big to save all three break points and consolidate the break for a 4-1 lead.
Suddenly, it was the Canadian looking the more comfortable of the pair on Court Philippe-Chatrier, as some dramatic shot-making handed him a second break and a 5-1 lead. Serving for the set, Auger-Aliassime finally blinked and surrendered one break back, but at the second time of asking, he easily served out the opening set.
Auger-Aliassime had a chance to ramp up the pressure with a pair of break points early in the second set, but was unable to convert. As the set went along, Nadal started to find his range, taking more control of the rallies despite some brilliant hitting from the Canadian.
The pressure from Nadal paid off late in the set, as he broke to take a 5-3 lead. While Auger-Aliassime put up some resistance, he was unable to stop the 13-time champion from leveling the match at a set apiece.
It seemed the beast was well and truly awake as the King of Clay applied constant pressure to the Auger-Aliassime serve in the third set. Nadal held break points in all four of his opponent’s service games, converting two, and never faced one as he raced to within a set of victory.
Just when it looked like Nadal might run away with the match, Auger-Aliassime wrestled control back. The Canadian broke immediately for a 2-0 lead in the fourth set and then was able to immediately respond when Nadal broke back in the following game, taking advantage of some missed forehand from the Spaniard to move ahead 3-1.
With the lead, Auger-Aliassime did not look back, not allowing another break point before holding to love to force a fifth set, just the third that Nadal had played in his career at Roland Garros.
Nadal entered the final set a perfect 5-0 in his career in fifth sets on clay, and it was clear why as he held serve with ease throughout the decider. His first chance to break came in the second game, but Auger-Aliassime slammed the door shut with a forehand winner.
The Canadian was unable to create much in the way of pressure on his opponent’s serve as the set went along and eventually given one more example of the Spaniard’s greatness near the end of the set.
Serving at 3-4, 30-40, having just saved a break point with a big serve, Auger-Aliassime put himself in position to get back to deuce with a near-perfect drop volley, only for Nadal to sprint across the court and flick a backhand past the Canadian to clinch the decisive break.
Even in defeat, just by reaching the fourth round, Auger-Aliassime joins Milos Raonic as the only Canadian men in the Open Era to reach at least the fourth round at all-four majors and to have reached the last sixteen at four straight Grand Slam events.
Auger-Aliassime will now shift his focus to the grass, a surface where he has been successful in the past, including reaching the final of Stuttgart and the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in 2021. His first event will be the ATP 250 event in S-Hertogenbosch, which takes place the week after the conclusion of the French Open.