Monday 19 February 2018

Djokovic dethrones the king of clay

Nadal left with no answer to surging Serb

Novak Djokovic hits a return against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros
Novak Djokovic hits a return against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros

Simon Briggs

Both players looked up into the sky as the ball ballooned vertically up off the frame of Rafael Nadal's racket and sailed a good three metres long.

It was the penultimate point of what was surely the most eagerly awaited French Open quarter-final in history, and it summed up what had been a chastening afternoon for the king of Roland Garros.

Everyone seemed to have a different opinion in the phoney war that preceded this momentous match. Would Nadal draw on the weight of history and find a new gear? Would Novak Djokovic wilt under the pressure of chasing the one Major title that has eluded him?

These were both plausible storylines, but in the end Djokovic's 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 victory was the logical outcome of eight months of tennis.

Since Nadal made his latest comeback from injury in the dog days of last season, he has lost the knack of making that mental switch - the moment when, as he described in his autobiography: "I take a cold shower in the locker-room and enter a new space in which I feel my power and resilience grow."

There have been ups and downs, days when Nadal felt his game was clicking back into place, and days when he suffered morale-sapping defeats. But the fear factor drained away and it has never really come back.

Even against the lesser players that he beat on the way to this High Noon-style rendezvous, he was spending too much time digging balls out at the back of the court, and too little winding up those pulverising haymakers that won him his nine French Open titles.

Here was the day of reckoning, out on Court Philippe Chatrier against Djokovic, an opponent who has barely lost during those same eight months that have found Nadal struggling so fitfully for form. This was no journeyman; this was a tennis genius who carries the same sort of aura that Roger Federer did in his heyday. Was the result ever really in doubt?

Djokovic showed nerves at times, as was inevitable given the high stakes on offer. But he was calm and focused at the start of the match, when he imposed himself with near-perfect ball-striking and ingenious tactics to charge out to a 4-0 lead. His secret weapon was his drop shot, which he hit often and with excellent touch.

"He made some unforced errors that are not characteristic for him," Djokovic explained later. "But that's what happens when you don't feel comfortable. I moved him around the court (and) he was a bit uncomfortable in his footing. That's where I want him."

Would it really be so simple to end Nadal's 39-match winning sequence in Paris? Not quite. Djokovic experienced a moment of vertigo, and while his concentration wavered, 4-0 became 4-4. Yet the wound was only skin-deep.

Soon, a scorching forehand pass forced another error from Nadal and clinched that vital first set. It was a rally that summed up the challenge that Djokovic presents, for few other players would even have reached the ball, let alone hit it cross-court with pace and devilish top-spin.

There is no way past the world No 1's adamantine defence unless you are connecting with total conviction, which is something Nadal never managed to do. He stayed in touch for a while in a 46-minute second set, but remained a shadow of the colossus who usually bestrides this court.

From there, things spiralled out of control. The match ended with a double-fault, and Nadal looked nauseous in the interview room as he admitted: "In the third, I am not happy about the way I tried."

This was a rare confession from a man who is known for his fighting spirit.

Otherwise, though, he was his usual sensible and polite self. "It's not a big surprise, no?" he said. "I didn't win enough before here. It's something that could happen when you see the draw. I lost in 2009 and it's not the end. I lost in 2015 and it's not the end.

"I hope to be back next year with another chance. There is only one sure thing, I want to work even harder to come back stronger."

So there will be a new winner at Roland Garros this year, with Andy Murray - who beat Spain's David Ferrer in four sets - joining Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Stanislas Wawrinka in the final four.

The will be the first from outside the gilded double-act of Nadal and Federer since Gaston Gaudio in 2004. Djokovic must feel that he has one hand on the trophy already.

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