Rafael Nadal narrowly avoided defeat at the French Open as he battled past Felix Auger-Aliassime for a 3-6 6-3 6-2 6-3 victory after an hour and 21 minutes. The 13-time champion in Paris will now face a rematch with his biggest rival Novak Djokovic in the quarter-final, after the world No 1 beat him in last year’s semi-final – the most recent of their 58 meetings.
It was a significant match for the Nadal family, as the world No 5’s first meeting with Auger-Aliassime since the Canadian started working with his former coach and uncle Toni. The 61-year-old chose to snub both players’ camps and instead sat in the front row of the presidential area for the match, though had snubbed his own player and shared his hope for his nephew to win.
Nadal was the first player to set up break point chances in the match but the ninth seed saved all three to hold for 2-1, before breaking the 13-time French Open champion himself. The world No 5 was once again unable to convert three more break points on the Auger-Aliassime serve and was suddenly in more trouble as he led 40-30 on his serve before finding himself break point down to his opponent, dumping a backhand in the net to gift Auger-Aliassime another break to serve for the first set at 5-1.
Nadal wasn’t ready to give up just yet, as he went 30-40 up and a double-fault from his uncle’s new charge gave him the break back and kept him alive in the set at 2-5. The 13-time champion was able to hold and force Auger-Aliassime to attempt to serve for the set again but this time the Canadian closed it out 6-3 in 57 minutes, marking the Spaniard’s first set dropped in the tournament.
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After both players opened the second with a hold of serve, the Spaniard took a tumble while serving at 1-1 before facing two more break points in the longest game of the set. He eventually held for a 2-1 lead after more than eight minutes and was eventually rewarded with his own break points at 4-3, breaking the 21-year-old for just the second time in the match to serve for the set, taking it 6-3 in 52 minutes to level things on Chatrier.
Nadal started the third with two break points which were saved by Auger-Aliassime, but the Spaniard broke the Rotterdam champion in his next service game and got a second break in the third set to serve for it at 5-2, holding to love for a two-sets-to-one lead as he had now started to dominate after dropping the opener. The Canadian ended his opponent’s run by holding to open the fourth and was suddenly right back in it as he converted his second break point to start the set with a 2-0 lead.
Nadal broke straight back but Auger-Aliassime immediately regained his lead for 3-1, which proved to be the crucial break as both men held on until the world No 9 closed it out 6-3, forcing a fifth and final set. The Spaniard held to start the decider but couldn’t take a break point in the next game, and despite coming from 0-40 down to deuce on the Auger-Aliassime hold at 3-2, the 21-year-old held on to level the fifth set at 3-3.
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With the ninth seed serving at 3-4, Nadal suddenly pounced and set up two break points to serve for the match. Auger-Aliassime saved the first with a booming serve but the most successful player in the tournament’s history put the ball past his opponent to break for a 5-3 lead and let out a huge cry of “vamos”. And the 13-time champion showed why he was the ‘King of Clay’ by sealing a 3-6 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-3 victory after more than four hours.
The next round is set to be even more difficult for Nadal, who will now face his long-time rival and the last man to beat him at the French Open in Djokovic. The world No 1 has already admitted he is “ready” to face the man dubbed the ‘King of Clay’ after defeating him in four sets in the semi-final stage of the tournament en route to winning the title last year.
Nadal and Djokovic’s 59th meeting in the quarter-final will be played on Tuesday, though it remains to be seen whether they will be given the day or night session on Court Philppe-Chatrier with the world No 1 better in the evening conditions and the 13-time champion better in the day, as Djokovic previously admitted: “All I will say is Rafa and I would make different requests.”