We knew for a while that Rafael Nadal was not in peak form heading into the 2015 French Open. The greatest clay-courter of all time was mortal during all of clay season. He lost to Fabio Fognini in both Rio and Barcelona, and against Novak Djokovic (Monte Carlo), Andy Murray (Madrid), and Stan Wawrinka (Rome) in spring tune-ups, he lost by a combined 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6, 6-2.
Still, he did beat Grigor Dimitrov, Tomas Berdych, and John Isner, all in straight sets, in recent weeks, and with the right draw, it was still conceivable that he could make a run at his 10th French Open title.
Nadal's form was fine through the first week at Roland Garros, but he didn't get the right draw. Stuck with a No. 6 seed, he drew the top-ranked Djokovic in the quarterfinals, and No. 1 player in the world disposed of him in less-than-sentimental manner.
After a nip-and-tuck first set that saw an aggressive Djokovic jump out to a 4-0 lead before Nadal stormed back, the match quickly grew lopsided. Djokovic broke Nadal at 5-5 in the first set and proceeded to win 14 of the final 18 games of the match. He took the second set, 6-3, and any hopes of a last-ditch Nadal comeback were spoiled when Djokovic broke to start the third set. The final: 7-5, 6-3, 6-1. Djokovic will play No. 3 seed Andy Murray in the semifinals while No. 8 Stan Wawrinka and No. 14 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga battle on the opposite side.
Here are three things we learned on Wednesday in Paris.
1. Novak Djokovic is a killing machine
On March 1, Djokovic lost to Roger Federer, 6-3, 7-5, in the finals in Dubai. Since then, he has not lost. He dropped a total of eight sets in winning Indian Wells (beating Federer in the final), Miami (Murray), Monte Carlo (Berdych), and Rome (Federer again). Before facing Nadal, he massacred No. 20 Richard Gasquet, 6-1, 6-2, 6-3, in the fourth round.
The story of this match is going to be The End For Nadal. That's fine. But nobody else in the world could have made Nadal look like Djokovic did on Wednesday. Nadal knows he is not completely fit, and he has to defend more than he would prefer; it cost him a set in the fourth round against big-hitting Nebraskan Jack Sock, and it made him an underdog against Djokovic.
But from the opening points of the quarterfinals, he was on the defensive. He forfeited the court to Djokovic from the get-go, hoping instead that his defense could force errors or create eventual opportunities. That can work against a lot of guys; it doesn't work against this version of Djokovic.
Even during the tight first set, the hitting numbers were drastically in Djokovic's favor: Djokovic hit 19 winners to Nadal's nine and won 55 percent of first-set points. That tends to translate more to a 6-3 set than 7-5, and it hinted at what was to come.
- Second set winners: Djokovic 13, Nadal 4. Total points won: Djokovic 58 percent.
- Third set winners: Djokovic 13, Nadal 3. Total points won: Djokovic 68 percent.
Again, Nadal isn't in peak form, whatever that is for him at this point. But Djokovic has been playing as well or better than he did even in 2011, when he went 70-6 and won three slams. He can still grind and wear you down as well as ever -- he has closed out matches with sets of either 6-0 or 6-1 on 11 occasions in 2015, including in both the semis and finals of the Australian Open in January. But his offense is crippling, and his serve is improving. He won 86 percent of his service games during his 2011 run; he's winning 90 percent in 2015. And the best returner in the game is still the best returner in the game.
2. Someone will win at Roland Garros for the first time
As long as he is playing like this, Djokovic is the French Open favorite at this point. But he's still got quite a bit of work to do. Andy Murray is undefeated on clay in 2015, having rolled through Madrid (smoking Nadal in the finals) and Munich in limited prep, and he looked rather clinical himself in disposing of clay master David Ferrer in four sets on Wednesday. Plus, while Stan Wawrinka's only slam title was on hard courts at the 2014 Australian Open (against Nadal), his game has its highest ceiling on clay, where he can catch up to a few more balls and use his heavy strokes to knock people off of the court. And while Jo-Willie Tsonga is a bit of a surprise, he plowed through the first week nearly unscathed and has already taken down Berdych and Kei Nishikori.
Nadal vs. Djokovic
Nadal vs. Djokovic
Plus, the stakes are now raised. When Nadal was at his peak, you were just hoping for a good draw so you could say you reached the finals or the semifinals before Nadal took you apart. Just ask poor David Ferrer. The late-blooming Spaniard lost to Nadal for three straight years, getting crushed in the semis in 2012, in the finals in 2013, and in the quarterfinals (after taking the first set) in 2014.
Roger Federer's case for being called the best player of all time revolves partially around the fact that he won the French Open the one time that Nadal lost (2009) and can therefore boast of winning all four slams at least once. From a legacy standpoint, this tournament now means everything in the world to both Djokovic (five Aussie titles, two Wimbledons, a U.S. Open, and zero French) and Murray (one Wimbledon, one U.S. Open, and four Aussie final appearances). It might be 30-year old Wawrinka's best shot at a second slam, too, especially since he would only have to beat Djokovic or Murray, and not both.
They know this, too. Slam semifinals are always intense; of course they are. But expect Friday's two matches to be off the charts in this regard.
3. Rafael Nadal may not be finished, but he's getting close
Once you prove yourself to be a member of a sport's pantheon, we race to be the first one to correctly call you done, finished, kaput. Just ask Roger Federer. It becomes a game. OK ... NOW he's done. No? Now! And ...... now!
Ten years from now, when tennis' aging Big 4 are finally finished (well, except for Djokovic, who will be sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber and still winning five-hour matches), we'll be able to go back and properly pinpoint the moment everything officially fell apart for each given player. And perhaps Wednesday was just that for Nadal. Perhaps he'll never again maintain for two weeks what we have thought of as his fifth gear of play. He's 29, after all, and his absurdly physical style has put four decades' worth of age on his legs. Watching him play makes you tired, and he probably wasn't a candidate to play elite, top-3 or so tennis for quite as long as the lighter-on-his-feet Federer has. From a style standpoint, he is Dwyane Wade to Federer's Kobe Bryant, Bo Jackson to Fed's Barry Sanders.
But he's still 70-2 all time at Roland Garros. It took Novak Djokovic to end his five-year title streak. He dropped three sets during his 2011 title run and was taken to five sets by John Isner, and we started to assume Djokovic was going to overtake him soon; then he dropped one set in winning in 2012. He dropped four sets and won as a 3-seed in 2013, then dropped only two as a 1-seed in 2014. Every time we think he's on his way down, he rebounds. Djokovic's Wednesday dominance was extreme, but it was only a little bit more convincing than Nadal's other Roland Garros loss, a 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 defeat at the hands of Robin Soderling. He responded to that one by winning five titles in a row.
Nadal might not be done, and he still might have a 10th title in him if Djokovic's form dips again (and your perfect form always does). But when he is officially through winning slams, this is what it will look like: a timid, aging Nadal, camped out far behind the baseline and incapable of doing enough damage against an opponent who is dialed in and running him from side to side. That it happened against a peaking Djokovic doesn't mean it will happen against just anybody, but it will likely happen more in the next couple of years.
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