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INSTANT REACTION: Nadal chats with Tennis Channel's Jon Wertheim after his marathon win

When it came to Sunday’s contest pitting Rafael Nadal against Felix Auger-Aliassime—RaFAA?—Toni Nadal couldn’t lose. Either his nephew, or his pupil, would advance to the quarterfinals and get a shot at defending champion Novak Djokovic.

Of course, the contest had a definite winner and a definite loser, though at times you could have foreseen either player receiving each distinction.

In the end, in 4:21, the winner was Nadal, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

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Get ready for Nadal versus Novak Djokovic on Tuesday, but savor the effort shown by Rafa and Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday.

Get ready for Nadal versus Novak Djokovic on Tuesday, but savor the effort shown by Rafa and Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday.

Auger-Aliassime had played Nadal just once before today, at the Madrid ATP Masters 1000 in 2019. Nadal won that match, 6-3, 6-3. So when the 21-year-old Canadian turned the tables on the 21-time Grand Slam champion by winning a 6-3 set of his own, eyebrows rose. Then, at 1-1 in the second set, Auger-Aliassime earned a break point against a relatively leaky Nadal, who had finished the first set with 15 unforced errors.

Nadal saved that break point and held: 2-1 Rafa. And with a bit of help later on, the 35-year-old Spaniard leveled the match:

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At 1-1 in the third set, Nadal played another break point, but this time he was the one returning serve. It was Auger-Aliassime’s point—surely—with Nadal scampering well behind the baseline, albeit while playing peerless defense and forcing FAA to hit one more ball. When Auger-Aliassime couldn’t keep one of his overheads in play, it was 2-1: Rafa. And with his fearsome form seemingly back, the titan of the terre battue took a two-sets-to-one lead.

But Rafa’s rollercoaster ride of a day featured an unexpected dip. Broken early in the fourth set despite leading 40-0, Nadal would make 13 unforced errors while Auger-Aliassime turned up his aggression.

“The spigot is back on for Nadal’s unforced errors,” said Tennis Channel commentator and two-time French Open champion Jim Courier, “and he needs to shut it off immediately.

For all Nadal has experienced in his career, fifth sets at Roland Garros have been scarce. Coming into this match, he’d played just two: in the first round of the 2011 tournament against John Isner, and in the semifinals of the 2013 tournament against Djokovic. Nadal won them both.

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At 1-1 in the decider—after Auger-Aliassime saved an early break point—the youngster again tried to begin return points on his terms.

“One thing that Felix did so well in set four,” said Courier, “was hit his returns so deep. It was breathtaking.”

On serve, Auger-Aliassime wasn’t going anywhere, either; he made 12 of 14 first serves in his first two final-set service games and held for 2-2. And when he was taken to deuce from 40-0, while serving at 2-3, Auger-Aliassime didn’t capitulate, holding nerve and serve (he did the same thing late in the fourth set).

But Nadal answered right back with a love hold for 4-3. Then he got to 0-30—and then, to 15-40, after a stretch forehand winner down the line.

“Has the incredible talent to flick a half-volley winner,” said Courier at the time, “and here come two break points.”

He would need both, but after “a moment of magic, from the King of Clay,”—a full-stretch volley retrieval winner—Nadal broke for 5-3.

“Felix did nothing wrong in that point,” Courier replied.

Auger-Aliassime may have done nothing wrong then, but against Nadal on the terre battue, only right will do.