It had all the hype of a heavyweight championship fight, with loud music building to a crescendo as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal went onto Court Philippe Chatrier for their highly-hyped French Open quarter-final on Wednesday.
It seemed a little out of place because music had not been heard when any other matches were played, and was a bit over-the-top following what was probably a slightly louder ovation for Djokovic than Nadal when the players were announced on court.
On a glorious mid-afternoon, with none of the extreme winds that buffeted the tournament on Tuesday and with skies that were 90 per cent blue, the stage was royally set.
While the players were hitting during the warm-up in the final moments full of anticipation before play begins, this writer wondered what factors would determine the eventual outcome – would it be the last few weeks of tennis when Djokovic had clearly been better than Nadal, the last many months when it had been the same …or would it be the last number of years when Nadal had beaten the Serb every time (six in all) when they played at Roland Garros on his way to winning an almost unimaginable nine titles.
Djokovic served first and hit a backhand winner on the opening point on his way to complete domination in the early going – grabbing a 4-0 lead. But he was almost too good too soon and gradually unforced errors crept into his game and Nadal settled and capitalized – climbing all the way back to 4-all.
It seemed incredible that the world No. 1 could concede a two-break lead and the Djokovic clan seated near yours truly was getting anxious. Papa Srdjan spent almost the entire match repeatedly calling out something that sounded phonetically like “own-ox-sah” – and at the completion of the match he explained was a nickname for Novak.
At 4-all those original thoughts about what would most influence the outcome came flooding back, especially with the factor of Nadal’s amazing 70-1 record at Roland Garros – together with the match being played on his 29th birthday.
The plot thickened when he saved six set points – including surviving the fourth trailing 5-6 with an overhead that ticked the top of the net and landed good for a winner.
When the total of set points saved reached six, it seemed certain that if Nadal came back to win the set, Djokovic would be hard-pressed to rally against the Roland Garros monster that is Nadal and the ghosts that must still haunt him after all those previous losses to the Spaniard in the Parisian springtime.
When Djokovic finally took the set on his seventh set point with a brilliant forehand cross-court passing shot that Nadal popped wide as he tried to caress a backhand volley, it was a mammoth relief for him.
Play resumed even terms in the second set until Djokovic broke serve for a 5-3 lead. It was at that point that yours truly finally had the answer to that original question. It would be the logic of the last few weeks and months – Djokovic’s sustained excellence – that would prevail.
The last set was one-sided, with Djokovic racing to a 4-0 lead that he would not, as in the first set, relinquish. In my notepad I scribbled “target practice” and “show-time” as his game just flowed with gorgeous, aggressive shotmaking buoyed by the confidence provided by a two-sets lead. The final score was 7-5, 6-3, 6-1.
Near the end, when Djokovic was wielding a magic wand, one joker in the crowd called out “taxi” after a particularly deft drop shot winner – meaning it’s time to go home.
And just before the ultimate match point, another clown yelled “rembourser” (refund), suggesting that the match had become a no-contest.
That was unfair to Nadal who, as he would say later, gave it his all in the first and second sets, although he was displeased with his play in the third.
Shortly after losing, Nadal took the high road, commenting on the result, “Novak was under control most of the time. So he was better than me. That’s it. I just congratulate him.”
When a reporter tried to suggest that Nadal had doubted himself, he quickly riposted with, “I was doubtful about myself the 11 years that I have been playing here. I won nine and lost twice. Doubts are good in life.”
Djokovic was obviously elated with his victory, which keeps him on course for a first French Open title to complete his career Grand Slam.
While he has become reasonably proficient with his French, the mental strain of the match with Nadal had obviously been stressful. He tried to answer on-court interviewer Cedric Pioline’s questions and did the best he could with a few stumbles before, exasperated, he finally said in French, “this is the fifth match that I’ve spoken to you afterward,” adding with a smile “ca suffit, merci beaucoup” (that’s enough, thanks a lot).
The match may only have lasted two hours and 26 minutes but playing Nadal in Court Philippe Chatrier has become arguably the greatest challenge ever in tennis. Djokovic said about facing the living-legend Spaniard, “against Rafa you always expect one ball more than any other player can give you back on a clay court. That’s why it’s not easy sometimes to keep on playing on that level and keep on making winners all the time.”
There was a stat that underlined Djokovic’s brilliance against the rugged, relentless retrieving of the nine-time Roland Garros champion – he had 45 winners to a mere 16 for Nadal. Both had 30 unforced errors.
Andy Murray, who advanced to Friday’s semifinal vs. Djokovic with a 7-6(4), 6-2, 5-7, 6-1 win over David Ferrer, probably offered the best consensus opinion on the Djokovic – Nadal result, saying, “that was always a potential outcome with the way Novak has been playing. So, it’s going to be an extremely tough match on Friday.”
In the lead-up to the Djokovic – Nadal blockbuster, Murray had some fun with a tweet on Tuesday night:
Who’s everyone picking in the big match at roland garros tomorrow? Murray vs Ferrer..Just kidding fully aware we are playing second fiddle
— Andy Murray (@andy_murray) June 2, 2015
Murray will be the decided underdog going into the semifinal. He trails their head-to-head 8-18, has lost their last seven matches and hasn’t beaten the man he is one week older than since the 2013 Wimbledon final.
He is on a 14-match unbeaten streak on clay after titles in Munich and Madrid, and has really found his feet on clay for the first time in his career.
Still, a potential hot day on Friday with the temperature above 30 degrees may be his best hope for an upset. Djokovic struggles in that kind of weather…and there’s a tip-off for Murray. If the Serb is wearing a cap, he’s concerned about the affects of the conditions. He didn’t wear a hat Wednesday, and Nadal experienced firsthand the stupendous tennis the world No. 1 can play.
“Everything coming together in my life and experiencing probably the pinnacle of my career, of my life, complete person, very satisfied on and off the court,” Djokovic said, “I think that all influences the results and my performance.”
The women’s final four
The last four standing in the Roland Garros women’s singles draw are the mighty Serena Williams and three women who appeared distinctly unlikely to be there when the 2015 event began 10 days ago.
Williams, who has had to battle through three matches in a row where she rallied from a one-set deficit before beating Sara Errani 6-1, 6-3 on Wednesday, is always the favourite in any WTA tournament these days. But her brilliant dominance in finishing matches at this year’s French Open has often contrasted with dreadful beginnings when she looks all out of sorts and playing horrendous tennis by her high standards.
The other three players in Thursday’s semifinals with the top-ranked Williams are No. 24 Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland, her opponent in the semifinals, as well as No. 7 Ana Ivanovic and No. 13 Lucie Safarova.
Williams is 2-0 versus Bacsinszky, winning 7-6(2), 6-1 in Rome in 2010 and 7-5, 6-3 at Indian Wells in March. The 25-year-old Swiss has been one of the revelations of 2015, beginning the year at No. 48, she was runner-up in the Shenzen, China, event to start the year and subsequently won titles at Mexican hard-court tournaments in Monterrey and Acapulco in February/March.
She had not been too impressive heading into Roland Garros – 2-2 in major events in Madrid and Rome – but has lost only one set (against No. 4 seed Petra Kvitova in the round-of-16) and is a resourceful player who struggled with a foot injury from 2011 to 2013 but eventually found her passion for tennis renewed when she barely got into the 2013 French Open qualifying draw.
The other semifinal matches two players, Ivanovic and Safarova, who have been known as being fine ball strikers but equally as being wanting in the area of intestinal fortitude. Ivanovic, hindered by a toe injury early in the year, was life-and-death to survive two three-set agonies against No. 69-ranked Yaroslava Shvedova and No. 103 Misaki Doi in the first two rounds in Paris but has since settled and is looking something like an updated version of her 20-year-old self. That’s the one who triumphed at Roland Garros in 2008.
Safarova, 28 and now guaranteed to be Top 10 for the first time in her career, has long been a wild card player who could threaten anyone but who would usually falter at crunch-time in big matches. But a Wimbledon semifinal last July (loss to Kvitova), an Australian Open doubles title (Bethanie Mattek-Sands) in January and the help of her Canadian coach, Rob Steckley of Toronto, have given her the revitalized confidence to challenge for a Grand Slam title. Her left-handed angled cross-court forehand has been one of the signature shots of this Roland Garros and was a major reason for her 7-6(3), 6-4 win over Maria Sharapova on Monday.
Safarova is 5-3 lifetime vs. Ivanovic and had won five in a row before the Serb beat her 6-3, 6-2 in Tokyo last fall. Safarova defeated Ivanovic 6-3, 6-3 in the third round of Roland Garros a year ago, but Ivanovic won their only other French Open encounter – 6-2, 6-2 in 2008 on her way to winning the final over Dinara Safina.
The surprise semifinalist in the second quarter of the draw, Bacsinszky, must have last year’s semifinalist Genie Bouchard, also originally in that quarter, wondering about an opportunity missed. Similarly, the 2014 runner-up Simona Halep appeared a much more plausible semifinalist from the third quarter than Ivanovic.
Can anyone remaining beat Williams? Logic says no but Williams has struggled more at Roland Garros than any other Grand Slam, and now the pressure is squarely on her broad shoulders as the overwhelming favourite.
Timea Bacsinszky, Lucie Safarova or Ana Ivanovic as 2015 French Open champion? – that seemed far-fetched before the tournament started. But it will be a fact if Williams slips up on the way to what appears to be her third (2002 and 2013) Roland Garros championship.
Charlotte Robillard-Millette of Blainville, Que., was beaten 6-3, 6-3 by Paula Babosa Gibert in the third round of the French Open juniors on Wednesday.
The 17-year-old Spaniard was just too powerful off the ground and with her serve for Robillard-Millette in the 71-minute match on Court 3. She has experience in the pros – winning two rounds at the WTA Premier Mandatory event in Madrid last month – and a ranking of No. 270 to Robillard-Millette’s No. 802.
“I knew she was a good player and would be solid and that I’d really have to play my best tennis if I was going to win the match,” Robillard-Millette said. “I thought I started well but there were moments in the match when she showed that she was just more solid in the important points.
“She hits a really deep ball, a very heavy ball and she moves really well so I had some trouble finding a game-plan that would work for me.
“She’s physically really quite a big player and that’s a bit intimidating as well. I think she’s two years older than me. I sensed that she really knew what she was doing. And she’s had a bit of experience in the pros as well and has a good ranking, so maybe that helped her. But I can’t believe that in two years I won’t be where she is now.”
Robillard-Millette, 16, will now return home before returning for the pre-Wimbledon junior event at Roehampton in London.
She has never in her life played on a grass court. “I’ve heard that the ball doesn’t bounce very high and that it’s slow and maybe slippery too, so I really don’t know what to expect,” she said smiling. “It’ll be fun, a neat new experience for me. It should be a good surface for me. I’m anxious to see how I’ll do on it.”
Summing up her experience at Roland Garros, Robillard-Millette said, “in general I’m happy with my tournament, my first French Open. It’s tough to lose but she played well and I tried my best.”
Paris… Paris… Paris…
The 16th arrondissement is one of the swankier addresses in Paris. This random street scene is from Wednesday morning and the location is near the Michel-Ange Auteuil Metro stop, which many people use when going to Roland Garros.