French Open

Playing “with the right dimensions”, Rafael Nadal found his best when most needed to meet Felix Auger-Aliassime's Roland Garros challenge

By Steve Tignor May 29, 2022
French Open

Alexander Zverev has surgery to repair torn ligaments in ankle

By Associated Press Jun 07, 2022
French Open

Long after he had nothing left to prove, Rafael Nadal showcased mastery of the clay-court chess match yet again to make it 14 for 14 in Roland Garros finals

By Steve Tignor Jun 05, 2022
French Open

The eternal now of Rafael Nadal: A journey of endurance, patience, and suffering for the Roland Garros title

By Joel Drucker Jun 05, 2022
French Open

Rafael Nadal wins record-extending 22nd Grand Slam title with incomparable 14th final-round victory at Roland Garros

By Ed McGrogan Jun 05, 2022
French Open

Preview: Will Rafael Nadal move to 14-0 in Roland Garros championships against first-time major finalist Casper Ruud?

By Steve Tignor Jun 04, 2022
French Open

"She's always hitting winners": Six months after trusting her talent like never before, Iga Swiatek is the one setting new standards in ground-stroke prowess

By Steve Tignor Jun 04, 2022
French Open

Coco Gauff's Paris education continues after Roland Garros final defeat to Iga Swiatek

By Joel Drucker Jun 04, 2022
French Open

Flawless Iga Swiatek sweeps to Roland Garros title, conquers Coco Gauff in final

By David Kane Jun 04, 2022
French Open

Casper Ruud beat Marin Cilic at Roland Garros by channeling the man he’ll play in his first major final: Rafael Nadal

By Steve Tignor Jun 03, 2022

Advertising

READY FOR NADAL-DJOKOVIC 59? Watch exclusively on Tennis Channel, the Tennis Channel app and on Tennis Channel Plus

Rafael Nadal’s 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 win over Felix Auger-Aliassime at Roland Garros on Sunday may or may not go down as the best match of the year. But as far as pure sporting entertainment goes, it will be hard to top, inside or outside of tennis, in 2022.

For four hours and 21 minutes, the 35-year-old Spaniard and the 21-year-old Canadian offered us that most satisfying of storylines: A young upstart challenging an aging all-time great on his home turf, and the all-time great responding by lifting his game to a level that no one has ever been able to match on a clay court. Nadal finished with his 109th victory roar in Paris. Auger-Aliassime finished with a crooked smile of appreciation—for the moment, for his opponent, and hopefully for himself—as he walked to the net to shake Rafa’s hand.

This five-set match played out in five acts, as the two traded the momentum back and forth every 10 games or so

The first act was dominated by Auger-Aliassime. He broke Nadal in the third game of the match and used his serve—especially the wide one in the deuce court—his forehand, his drop shot, and his net game to win the first set. Nadal’s shots, meanwhile, didn’t have their usual oomph or depth. FAA played above-the-net tennis, while Nadal was mired behind the baseline.

“If you are not able to push him back, is very difficult to control him,” Nadal said of Auger-Aliassime, “because he has a huge serve and first shot with his forehand, yeah, is very aggressive.”

Advertising

Nadal moved to 3-0 in deciding sets at the Paris major.

Nadal moved to 3-0 in deciding sets at the Paris major.

The second act began when Auger-Aliassime, perhaps inevitably, fell back to earth. He did it by missing two crucial forehands in the second set. The first came when he had a break point at 1-1; with a good look at a down-the-line forehand winner, he fired the ball just wide, and Nadal went on to hold. FAA’s second crucial miss came when he was serving at 3-4; after saving two break points, he sent another makable putaway forehand wide at game point. It seemed like a small error at the time, but it gave Nadal a second bite at the break, and this time he took it.

The third act, which lasted from 5-3 in the second set to 0-1 in the fourth, was all Nadal. This was “freight-train” time, as commentator Prakash Amritraj called it, that point in the contest where Nadal traditionally rolls over his opponent with dive-bombing forehands to each corner. This was a movie many of us have seen dozens of times at Roland Garros, and it seemed sure to end in a four-set runaway victory for Rafa.

But credit Auger-Aliassime for writing a late twist into that plot. Despite getting steamrolled in the third set, he didn’t show a hint of negativity or agitation. He started the fourth by breaking Nadal in the second game, and then breaking him again in the fourth with a deep forehand return. From that point until the middle of the fifth set, FAA had the upper hand, as he ran Nadal up and back with drop shots. It seemed, as Rafa began to struggle to reach those drops, that age might catch finally up to Nadal in Paris, and youth might triumph.

We should have known better. Instead of grinding Rafa down physically, Auger-Aliassime ended up inspiring him to raise his level to its peak. The last two games were the final act of the match, and a fitting pinnacle.

Advertising

The lefty was facing the Canadian for the first time in more than three years (2019 Madrid).

The lefty was facing the Canadian for the first time in more than three years (2019 Madrid).

With FAA serving at 3-4, Nadal started by hitting a big forehand and finishing the point with a smash for 0-15. He hit another big forehand approach for 0-30, put a short-hop forehand pass on the baseline for 15-40, and broke serve with a running backhand pass.

Serving for the match at 5-3, Nadal hit a second-serve winner down the T that fooled Auger-Aliassime; hit a forehand volley winner for 30-15; a down-the-line forehand winner for 40-15; and a crosscourt forehand winner for the victory.

“He raised his level when he needed to,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I think he took it even higher, one step further, from 4-3. Honestly, I didn’t play a bad game. I did what I had to do. He was dictating, aggressive when he needed to, and also defending really well.”

“When I played well, I won the match,” Nadal said. “When I played not that well, I had a lot of troubles, no? Most important thing that I played again a good fifth set, and especially the last three, four games with the right dimensions, so very happy for that.”

Playing “with the right dimensions” is a bit of an understatement, as far as a description of what Rafa did in the last two games today. But he has been here before, and he knows he’ll have an even greater challenge in two days, in his quarterfinal against Novak Djokovic. Whatever happens then, this was a two-man performance to remember, and one that had a fitting dramatic arc. The best found his best, when he needed it most.