Nadal v Auger-Aliassime: Things we learned

 - Simon Cambers

Spaniard sets up blockbuster quarter-final with Djokovic after surviving five-set showdown

Rafael Nadal Roland-Garros 2022 8e de finale©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Rafael Nadal set up a mouthwatering clash with Novak Djokovic at Roland-Garros after a barnstorming fourth-round battle with Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday.

No.9 seed Auger-Aliassime pushed Nadal to the limit but in the final set, Nadal turned on the style to finish off a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory.

Here’s what we learned from Nadal’s 109th victory in 112 matches at Roland-Garros.

A desire that remains undimmed

Nadal turns 36 on Friday and having won the tournament 13 times, and having come into the event with doubts about his chronic foot pain and fears that he may be under-cooked after a shorter than usual clay-court season due to a fractured rib, there would have been plenty of legitimate excuses had he faded in the face of an onslaught from an inspired Auger-Alissime.

But beating Nadal at Roland-Garros remains an almost impossible task. Only two men – Djokovic (twice) and Robin Soderling – have managed it and the Spaniard still seems to want it as much as ever.

The final set, when Nadal became more aggressive on returns, started thumping his forehand even harder and came to the net at every opportunity, was as good as it gets and he lives to fight another day.

"All I know is that I will compete to the end," declared the 21-time major champion.

Rafael Nadal Roland-Garros 2022 8e de finale©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Foot seems to be okay, for now

Anyone who watched Nadal in Rome, bending double and grimacing in obvious pain, would have thought that the chances of him doing well in Paris were slim.

But here we are, a couple of weeks later and Nadal has given himself another chance to go again, against Djokovic in the quarter-finals on Tuesday.

His left foot, which almost caused his career to be derailed before it had really begun, is a constant source of pain. Most of the time, he can manage it but sometimes, as in Rome, it’s too much.

The good news is that he has moved exceptionally well throughout his four matches here and there are no obvious outward signs that anything is going to stop him from competing as hard as he can against Djokovic.

"I can't complain much. I am in quarter-finals of Roland Garros. Two and a half weeks ago, even if I had positive hopes after Rome, I even don't know if I would be able to be here," admitted Nadal on Sunday.

"So just enjoying the fact that I am here for one more year. And being honest, every match that I play here, I don't know if gonna be my last match here in Roland Garros in my tennis career, no? That's my situation now."

Rafael Nadal, huitièmes de finale, Roland-Garros 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Just the third time he’s gone the distance at RG

Such has been his dominance at Roland-Garros, from his first title win in 2005 to his 13th in 2020, Nadal has rarely found himself embroiled in epic battles on his favourite court.

Auger-Aliassime’s outstanding performance, and incredible attitude in the fourth set ensured that Nadal would go the distance in Paris for only the third time.

The first time was in 2011, when he beat John Isner from two sets to one down in the first round and the second was in 2013, when he edged out Djokovic in an epic, 9-7 in the fifth, in a semi-final that had almost everything. 

His win over Auger-Aliassime makes him 3-0 in five-setters at Roland-Garros and he’s now 22-12 in five-set matches at the four Grand Slams combined.

Uncle Toni knows how to 'look' neutral

Having suggested he would not be on court at all to watch the match, Toni Nadal did actually show up for the contest between his nephew and the youngster he’s been coaching since last year.

But Toni is nothing if not fair and so instead of sitting in the Auger-Aliassime box, as he would normally do, he sat in the presidential tribune, looking sideways onto the court, almost exactly level with the net.

He then left the court at the start of the fifth set, unable to cope with the stress, his inner feelings doubtless coming through.

Mind you, Nadal had already said he would not be bothered if Toni, who was his coach for 14 of his 21 Grand Slam titles, was on court, or in the Auger-Aliassime box or not.

“We are family more than anything else,” he said. “Not only family; we are a family that we stay together all the time. We are in the same village. We spend time in the academy together. We lived incredible emotions together. So he's not only an uncle. He's more than that.”

Auger-Aliassime will be back

This has been the best clay-court season of Auger-Aliassime’s career to date. After a slow start, he reached the quarter-finals in Barcelona, Estoril, Madrid and Rome, pushing Djokovic as hard as anyone in the Italian capital.

On Sunday, he showed he has the power, the maturity and growing clay-court nous to force the greatest clay-court player of all time to five sets and make him play his very best at the end.

An incredible athlete, at just 21, he has time on his side. If he stays healthy, he’ll be back next year, stronger and wiser for the battle.

Felix Auger-Aliassime, Roland Garros 2022, fourth round© Loïc Wacziak/FFT