French Open 2021: Djokovic battles past Musetti in five-sets, while Nadal surges to Sinner victory

Two former champions both faced 19-year-old Italians, but remain on course for semi showdown

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Corinne Dubreuil for Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters)

It was becoming increasingly, and excitingly, clear that there was an Italian army of young players striding towards the second week at this year’s French Open.

That the three of them could face ‘The Big Three’ and the only former Roland Garros champions in the draw for a place in the quarter-finals made the story-line all the more compelling.

And the three Italians fulfilled their part in the draw, but Roger Federer’s withdrawal after his gruelling third-round win on Saturday night promoted No9 seed Matteo Berrettini, the eldest of the Italian trio at age 25, into the quarters without lifting a racket.

However, if the other two Italians were to join him, they would certainly face perhaps the biggest tests in men’s tennis, especially on the clay of Roland Garros.

Both 19 years old, both with big fan followings, No18 seed Jannik Sinner took on the 13-time French Open champion and No3 seed Rafael Nadal. Meanwhile, the 79-ranked Lorenzo Musetti faced world No1 Novak Djokovic, and that after battling through five sets to beat another Italian, Marco Cecchinato in his previous match.

It was barely two years ago that the charismatic single-handed Musetti was the world No1 junior, and now he was playing his first ever Major after making a real impression this year to reach the semis in Acapulco—via qualifying—and then the semis in Lyon.

At Roland Garros, he had put out No13 seed David Goffin in the first round, but now faced a man fully focused on winning a landmark second French Open. If Djokovic won a second title in Paris, he would become the first man in the Open era, and only the third in history, to win each of the four Majors twice.

And make no mistake, Djokovic had been in cruise mode thus far in the tournament: no more than four games lost in a set. And he began with the confidence of someone who has been world No1 for longer than anyone else, breaking early in the first set.

But Musetti broke back in the fifth game and fended off a break point in the eighth to steer the set to a tie-break. There, it looked as though the former champion would step on the gas with a quick 4-1 lead, but Musetti went on a run of points to take the advantage, and converted his third set point, 7-6(7).

The Italian continued to break up any Serbian rhythm, and his anticipation saw him make some outrageous winners that left Djokovic with hands on hips. The Italian took a 3-1 lead, only to see it disappear, but come the tie-break, Musetti took the lead again, 4-0, and served for the set at 6-1. A forehand went way long from Djokovic, and the teenager had a two-sets lead, 7-6(2), after more than two and a quarter hours.

His variety in spin, pace and direction, and his nimble movement and quick hands, seemed to be keeping the world No1 out of his usual metronomic rhythm. But when he came back from a comfort break, Djokovic did quickly establish that rhythm, stringing two sharp holds of serve with a break for 3-0.

Musetti countered with a love hold, but he would have to break that precise baseline chess of his opponent’s tactics if he was to re-establish his own momentum and confidence. Instead, the Italian was increasingly a victim of the angles, penetration and accuracy that have kept the Serb so dominant for so long. He won just one game, as Djokovic glided to a 6-1 set, then broke and held to increase his grip on the match in the fourth, 2-0.

The momentum had shifted completely, but could the inexperienced Italian find his winning patterns of the first two hours? His forehands were shooting wide, his drop shots were not short enough, and his serving was predictable. So much so that Djokovic won the first 16 points of the set in 10 minutes, as Musetti made seven errors for no winners. Djokovic’s stats, meanwhile, was exactly the reverse.

The surge continued, and Djokovic served out the set with an ace, 6-0, having won 25 points to four. Musetti was beginning to look a little slower, in mind and body, and his body language told the same story. He left court for some medical treatment, but did he have a hope of denting the confidence of the former champion?

After dropping serve in the first game of the fifth, it looked doubtful. Djokovic was hitting his marks, switching direction from forehand and backhand, and looking as cool as a cucumber. Musetti was being reeled into the Serbian web, and to add to his discomfort, was clearly carrying a groin injury. So 0-1 became 0-3, with Djokovic winning 33 of the last 40 points, and finally Musetti could simply not move. He shook hands in defeat, 0-4, after three and a half hours.

It was a sad end to an exciting Paris debut, but it has surely heralded the arrival of a man destined to make his mark in future Major tournaments, and likely very soon.

If Musetti’s task was a cliff-face, Sinner’s was more like a mountain. The stats alone at Roland Garros were enough to make an opponent blanch: a 103-2 match-winning record; 13 titles; never fallen short of the fourth round in 16 appearances.

And Nadal had yet to drop a set, plus he had the advantage of playing Sinner for the third time in eight months. He beat the teenager at last October’s French Open, where Sinner reached a career-first Major quarter-final, and then beat him in Rome just a month ago. And like Musetti, Sinner had survived a five-set scrape earlier in the draw, saving match point against Pierre-Hugues Hubert.

However, the North Italian had accumulated two titles, one in Sofia last autumn, then the Great Ocean Road title in Melbourne this January. Still more impressive, he reached the final of the Miami Masters followed by the semis in Barcelona.

Here, Nadal took first blood, 2-0, though the lead was short-lived, as Sinner broke back in a long third game. The Italian broke again, too, and then resisted Nadal through a long hold, 4-2, fending off another break point.

Sinner went on to serve for the set, but Nadal broke back to love, as Sinner fired down a huge and nervy double fault: 5-5. The teenager’s game continued to unravel with a slew of errors, and Nadal broke to take the opener, 7-5.

The Italian went off court, apparently with an eye problem, and came back to find himself two breaks down in short order, 4-0, but the Italian bounced back to break twice in return, only to concede another break, 5-3. Nadal would not make a mistake, serving it out, 6-3.

It established the winning pattern for Nadal: He was now bristling with confidence, manipulating the angles and the top-spin, and defending with extraordinary athleticism. For all Sinner’s ability, power, and clever baseline patterns, he was limited by a lack of creativity. Nadal knew he had his man, broke three times in the third, and served for the match.

Sinner tried the attacking net play to earn a break chance, but it was too little too late. The defending champion sealed his 35th consecutive set at Roland Garros, his 104th match-win, 6-0, while Sinner left court with a lesson learned. He, like his compatriot Musetti, will be back.

For now, Nadal takes one step closer to a Djokovic semi-final, but will first play No10 seed Diego Schwartzman, who beat Jan-Lennard Struff, 7-6(9), 6-4, 7-5, to reach the quarter-finals for the third time. The Argentine, who has not lost a set in the tournament, was beaten in the semis last year by Nadal, one of 10 wins from 11 previous matches.

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