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Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal teach tough lessons to Italian teens Musetti, Sinner in Paris
Projected to face off in the semifinals, Djokovic rallied from two sets down while Nadal turned around a tricky opening set to advance.
Published Jun 07, 2021
WATCH: Novak Djokovic discusses his fourth-round win over Lorenzo Musetti after trailing by two sets at Roland Garros.
Everyone learns at their own pace. Rafael Nadal won Roland Garros the first time he played it. Novak Djokovic took the title on his 12th try. The learning speeds of each were mirrored today in Paris. Up against a pair of 19-year-old Italians, both faced early challenges before going on to handily win their respective round of 16 matches.
First up on Chatrier was Djokovic, going down two sets to love versus Lorenzo Musetti and then making a complete 180 degree turn to take the match, 6-7 (9), 6-7 (2), 6-1, 6-1, 4-0, retired. Nadal and Jannik Sinner followed. As was the case in their 2020 Roland Garros quarterfinal, Sinner served for the first set and was then overwhelmed, 7-5, 6-3, 6-0.
The high level of fitness Djokovic and Nadal have shown for years is reminiscent of their fellow member of the career Slam club, Australian legend Roy Emerson. But as was displayed in rather brutal fashion today, Musetti and Sinner learned a harsh lesson best articulated by another Emerson, American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.”
For those two first two sets, Musetti’s strikes were razor-sharp. Though Djokovic served in the first set at 3-1, 40-15, Musetti soon enough began to shake off his nerves. So what if this was his first-ever appearance in the main draw of a major? So what if Musetti was on one of the biggest stages in tennis, up against an 18-time Slam champion? All that mattered was the ball.
Time and time again, Musetti slashed Djokovic to ribbons. How best to describe this man’s one-handed backhand? Sculpted. Fluid. Elegant. At times, downright luscious in his ability to either roll it crosscourt or drive it up-the-line, including one hit far to the left of the alley that shot over the net-post like the kind of tennis missile you’d expect Elon Musk to invent. That Musetti hit such a laser at 5-6 in the first set only added to the sense that he is a star in the making.
As they went into the tiebreaker, the numbers offered quite a contrast. Djokovic’s career mark in tiebreakers was 268-145. Musetti: 8-0. The Italian’s mark remained unblemished as he revealed a vast palette of shots and solutions. With Djokovic serving at 4-3, a Musetti lob kissed the line, the point ending with Djokovic netting a forehand. Musetti also cracked his share of inside-out forehands, including one with Djokovic serving at 7-8.
Musetti went ahead 3-1 in the second. But here, as we’ve seen so often, Djokovic broke back and the two again reached six-all. Surely, the time for Djokovic to assert had come and Musetti’s unbeaten record in tiebreakers. Instead, serving at 0-1, Djokovic lost three straight points, including one at 0-2 when he failed to even play a Musetti ball that turned out to land in. Musetti went on to handily take the tiebreaker, 7-2.
Who’d have guessed that Djokovic had him just where he wanted? Said Djokovic, “I mean, I actually felt more nervous when I was starting the match than when I was two sets down. To be honest, I even liked the fact that I lost first couple of sets, because I just played under certain kind of tension and wasn't able to go through my shots, too many unforced errors and just not playing and not feeling great in the first couple of sets. But credit to him for playing well in important moments.”
Djokovic from there on made the match a formality. The third set was easy and the fourth was even easier, Djokovic dropping a mere four points to level the match. Musetti, the Cinderella of Roland Garros ‘21, was turning into a pumpkin. In the fifth, Djokovic surrendered just three points in the first four games before Musetti tapped out—likely tired from his previous match, the first five-setter of his career. Afterwards, Musetti confirmed the impact of his prior battle, adding that versus Djokovic, he had cramped and felt pain in his lower back.
“Yeah, I mean, for me was a fantastic experience,” said Musetti. “I was playing, I think, my best tennis, for sure. I have never played like today. The first two sets were really long, like, two hours and, I don't know, more than two hours. Of course I'm a little bit disappointed, but I played I think against No. 1 in the world, and I took him, like, the first two sets. I mean, he started play really good, and then I had some problems with my physical part. Yeah, I think I have to work there.”
Djokovic expressed empathy for Musetti. “At the beginning of my career, I was also struggling with injuries and had to retire, you know, few matches at the Grand Slams at the beginning of my professional career,” he said. “That's obviously not fun. You know, it's not something that you desire to experience as a young player . . . You know, it's a mix between, you know, emotions and kind of an excitement but at the same time the pressure of not knowing how he's going to feel playing first time on the center court against a top player. You know, it's a new experience.”
I actually felt more nervous when I was starting the match than when I was two sets down. To be honest, I even liked the fact that I lost first couple of sets, because I just played under certain kind of tension and wasn't able to go through my shots, too many unforced errors and just not playing and not feeling great in the first couple of sets. Novak Djokovic after reaching the quarterfinals
Next up for Novak, another Italian, Matteo Berrettini, walkover winner over Roger Federer. The two have only played once, Djokovic winning 6-2, 6-1 at the 2019 ATP Finals in London. “He's very aggressive,” said Djokovic. “You know, with his big serve he's got a lot of, let's say, easier balls in the middle of the court that he can penetrate through the forehand or he can dropshot. He's very good at the net.”
As was the case when he won here as a 19-year-old rookie in 2005, Nadal came up with the answers much sooner. Just like Djokovic, Nadal too was up a break early in the first set, in his case, up 2-0, ad in. Just like Musetti, Sinner rallied and began to pound ball with gusto – flat, heavy, and deep drives that repeatedly compromised Nadal. Assessing what was happening at that stage, Nadal said, “I started to play too much against his backhand and too far from the baseline. So then I give him the chance to be inside the court and to have the control of the point from inside. From that position he's dangerous. I was a little bit farther every time, no, from the baseline.”
But from 3-5 down, Nadal dug a trench. The big blink came when Sinner served for the first set at 5-4. Two netted forehands and a double-fault proved fatal. Sinner also wasn’t aided when he had to leave the court at 5-6 to address an issue with his contact lens. Nadal soon won the set, taking 16 of the last 18 points.
Sinner well understood the terms of engagement. “Yes, maybe I would have won the first set, but you still have to win two more sets, so the way is long,” he said. “Yes, in the other way, obviously, you know, I think mentally he's very strong. That's what I'm trying to do, as well, staying strong. I'm trying to don't give him any free space.”
Nadal swiftly went up 4-0 in the second, only to see Sinner win the next three games to get back on serve. Once again, Nadal’s unsurpassed genius for competition surfaced. With Sinner serving at 3-4, love-30, the Italian feathered a drop shot. In raced Nadal, lofting a perfect backhand lob. Serving for the set, Nadal held at love and from there, Sinner was finished.
“I'm excited to play against him, because it's a huge test, you know, on what you would like to win in one way,” said Sinner. “But in the other way, you know, like today, it gives me the answer that I already said it before, that the way is very long still.”
Nadal in the quarterfinals will play the man he beat here in the semis last year, Diego Schwartzman. The two have met eleven times, Nadal winning all but one.
Djokovic and Nadal also have mentor-like relationships with the men they beat today. Djokovic has practiced with Musetti at their home base in Monte Carlo. Nadal went so far as to make Sinner his quarantine practice partner prior to the Australian Open. How nice for these two tennis godfathers to treat these young hopefuls with such paternalism. But as a good godfather will tell you, what happens in places like Roland Garros is no time for niceties. It’s strictly business.