Have you ever watched something weird? Something that just stands out as so incorrect, so one-sided, so not what it should be that you’re convinced something is going on, like an elaborate hoax or a practical joke. That’s what it felt like today watching Rafael Nadal lose in straight sets to Novak Djokovic in today’s French Open Quarterfinal match.
For those of you who don’t follow tennis with more than just a cursory glance at the sport during its major tournaments (and there are a lot of sports fans like that) this result wouldn’t seem that out of place. Djokovic is the #1 ranked men’s tennis player in the world, and he often takes his opponents apart on the way to a victory. One thing that was definitely strange was this match happening in the quarterfinals of the tournament, maybe the earliest meeting of high-powered players in French Open history. If you told a casual tennis player that Nadal and Djokovic were playing for the championship rather than just a semi-final date, it would probably seem more likely than not.
This early a meeting between these two was only possible because of Nadal’s dip in 2015. The Spaniard has slipped to #7 in the world this season, his lowest ranking in a decade. There have been other signs of Nadal’s decline this year. His only win so far came in an ATP 250 tournament (ATP 500, ATP 1000 and Open tournaments are all higher prestige) and he suffered quarterfinal defeats to other top 10 players like Tomas Berdych at the Australian Open and Stan Wawrinka at the Italian Open.
Still, it seemed doubtful that it would affect Nadal at the French Open. Any other player, sure you expect them to struggle, but nobody has ever been as dominant at a major tournament like Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. That isn’t hyperbole. The 29-year-old had lost once (ONCE!!! As in one time) to a player on those clay courts in ten years. That lone loss was an upset defeat to Sweden’s Robin Soderling in 2009, in the fourth round. Nadal lifted the trophy in the other nine tournaments. Coming into today, Nadal was 70-1 in French Open matches. In modern day tennis with other all-time great players like Djokovic and Rodger Federer and Andy Murray out there, that record is absurd. It boggles the mind.
So it was equally as mind-boggling to see Nadal lose to Djokovic this way, in his own domain: 7-5, 6-3, 6-1. Not only does Nadal not lose at Roland Garros, he certainly doesn’t lose in straight sets, and he had never trailed two sets to love in a match here before. Djokovic had 23 forehand winners to just three from Nadal! It just didn’t make sense. There were points early in the game where it looked like we were set up for another instant classic tennis match, like this point in the first set.
But it wasn’t to be. After dropping the first set, Nadal seemed to wilt as the game went along, rather than getting stronger like we’ve seen so many times in the past. Nadal is known for his tooth-and-nail style playing himself to the brink of exhaustion and injury in his refusal to go down without a fight. Instead, Nadal played defensively. Whether through his own lack of confidence with his play or because of Djokovic’s skill, he seemed unable to mount any offense, unable to push Djokovic onto the back foot.
There were two points especially that characterized the match for me. This first came in the second set. Down 5-3 having just had his serve broken, Nadal had to break Djokovic right back to avoid losing the set. He forced the game to deuce, and looked like he would surely have advantage when he returned Djokovic’s serve beautifully, placing it down around the feet of the onrushing Serbian. Amazingly, Djokovic somehow managed to throw is body downward while at the same time flicking a cross-court backhand over the net, landing the ball on the line as it bounced off the side court. Djokovic won the next point to take the set.
The second point came deep in the third set. With Djokovic out to a commanding lead and just points away from pulling a shocking upset, I expected to see Nadal’s determination kick in, to refuse to make it that easy to rip the crown from his head. When Djokovic hit a drop shot (and not even a great drop shot) that Nadal took one half-hearted step toward before stopping and watching it bounce, I knew the match was over. Nadal seemed to be in disbelief, demoralized at letting himself get into this situation in the first place.
After the match, Nadal said all the right things and talked about working harder than ever before to try and reclaim the title. The last time he lost a match at the French Open he won the next four tournaments there. It may be a little harder this time, but I’ll expect to see Nadal back on top very soon.