French Open 2015: Djokovic’s unstoppable force overcomes Nadal’s immovable object

Novak Djokovic beats Rafael Nadal in straight sets to reach the semi-finals of the French Open

When nine-time and defending champion Rafael Nadal took to court for perhaps the most highly anticipated Grand Slam quarter-final match of the last decade against the best player in the world, Novak Djokovic, he had the kind of statistics that would make a lesser man than the Serb quake in their tennis shoes.

In 10 appearances at the French Open—his first a decade ago as a teenager—Nadal had lost just one match. His 70-1 record had taken him to his 10th Roland Garros quarter-final.

And yet for many, for the first time in many a year, Nadal’s hopes of winning a remarkable 10th French title had become the subject of much debate, especially as he began his campaign seeded outside the top five for the first time in 10 years.

He arrived in Paris with just one clay title to his name, the 250 in Buenos Aires, and while it was not too much of a surprise that he fell in the semis of the Monte-Carlo Masters to Djokovic, his loss to Fabio Fognini in his second match in Barcelona was rather more so, and his loss to Andy Murray in the Madrid final was his first clay loss to the Briton. Then at the Rome Masters, he went out in the quarters to Stan Wawrinka, his first loss to the Swiss on clay.

His draw was therefore the subject of great speculation: Nadal could meet one of his great rivals in the quarter-finals rather than in the semis, and he fell into the path of Djokovic, the man who had beaten him in five of their last six matches, and in two of their last three on clay—though Nadal’s one win in that streak was right here, in last year’s final.

Had there been any doubting Nadal’s desire to retain his most treasured title, though, it was in his ever-improving form, though he had yet to face a seed and, unlike Djokovic, had lost a set along the way to their 44th meeting. As he said after beating Jack Sock,

“To have any chance against [Djokovic], I know I have to play my real best tennis. I am going to try my best!”

He referred, of course, to his next match, his 44th meeting against the might Serb. For the world No1 has targeted this title from the start of the season after being thwarted a year ago in his ambition to complete his career Grand Slam.

It was, indeed, Djokovic rather than Nadal who had become many people’s favourite for the title here, because in reaching his 24th consecutive Major quarter-final, he extended his unbeaten clay run to 14 and his season run to 39 for just two losses. With the Australian title and four Masters, including Monte-Carlo, it was hard to see anyone, including Nadal, denying him again. Even against the vast talent of No20 seed Richard Gasquet, and with the home crowd against him, Djokovic had dropped only six games.

And he opened, on this warm Wednesday, just as he would have hoped: held to love, broke the champion, and then repeated, 4-0. But any assumptions about the speed of his victory were quickly silenced as Nadal worked his formidable bounding forehand into action. The Spaniard regained both breaks, 4-4.

But the writing was soon traced in the dark red shadows of Philippe Chatrier’s clay: Djokovic held to love, Nadal defended three more break points, Djokovic held again, and this time he broke on the third break point to take the set, 7-5.

The gap between the two was certainly not enough to assure the fans of either Djokovic or Nadal of victory. Indeed the 67 minutes it had taken to decide the first set was nothing if not confirmation that this would follow the pattern of their most recent Roland Garros meetings. Last year, Djokovic won the first set only to lose in four. The year before, he had Nadal at two sets apiece before losing 7-9 in the fifth. And the year before that, in 2012, he also lost in four sets.

The second set this year saw the best of both men, bringing into focus the tension between Djokovic’s clean angled forehand and backhand precision, and Nadal’s baseline probing and signature down-the-line forehand finish.

Both tried to break the natural rhythm of the other, both so fast to chase in to the net to retrieve and play touch drop shots and lobs. They remained locked for seven games, but then Djokovic pressed a little harder to earn a couple of break chances and converted for 5-3. One amazing serve-and-volley play from the Serb to pick up a half volley showed all the speed, flexibility and touch of the world No1, and he held for the set, 6-3. He had allowed Nadal just four winners and made 13 of his own.

That set had been quicker, and the coup-de-grace would be even more ruthless. Djokovic broke in the first game of the third set when a tense Nadal made an uncharacteristic wild error on a volley. The Serb broke again and held to open up a 4-0 lead. Nadal avoided the ignominy of a ‘bagel’, but that would be all. Djokovic completed a rare and hugely significant victory with one more break, 6-1, in barely half an hour.

And so came to an end one of the most outstanding runs in tennis, Nadal’s 39-match winning streak in Paris, and only his second ever defeat here—on his 29th birthday.

It was Djokovic’s first victory over Nadal at a Grand Slam since their record-breaking 2012 Australian Open final, and showed just how far the balance of power has shifted in the Serb’s favour. At the start of the tournament, Djokovic had the most unenviable draw in tennis—Nadal in the quarter-finals of the French Open. Now he had jumped that hurdle without dropping a set.

His work is far from done: He will face another old adversary, Murray, who is also finding the best clay form of his career—an undefeated 15-match winning streak—after he beat David Ferrer for the first time on clay, though he did need four sets in a compelling battles of attack, counter-punch, defence and more attack between two of the fittest men in tennis.

But Nadal faces an even tougher prospect: falling to No10 in the rankings, his lowest position in over a decade. And that means, when the seedings are determined for Wimbledon, that he could draw one of the ‘big four’ even sooner than in Paris, in the fourth round. Bad news for him—and for his rivals.

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