The first of the men’s quarterfinals of the 2018 Roland Garros edition saw the ten time champion Rafael Nadal face off against 12th ranked player Diego Schwartzman from Argentina. Beforehand analysts were having a hard time to find a way the 5’7’’ tall roadrunner could deal with Rafa’s heavy topspin. Schwartzman gave us the answer early on by taking the ball as early as he possibly could in the early goings. In a match that spanned over two days, and carried a storyline that had two faces, Rafa came storming back from one set down to turn the tables in a 3 hours and 42 minutes marathon: 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
Five times the pair had met during their professional careers, all five encounters went Rafa’s way. Notably in 2018 they had met twice, once on the red clay of Madrid and once Down Under where Schwartzman was able to nibble away one set.
Surprisingly Schwartzman started off strong right off the bat on the Nadal serve. The defending champion was under the gun as Diego’s gutsy aggressive play earned him four break points. With equal spirited tenacity Nadal brushed them aside. But the tone had been set. Diego had come to play. Still the question early on remained: for how long could he keep it up?
In the second game of the match it was the Argentinian’s turn to fend off two break points before the score board read 1-1. The break through did however occur in the next game. Schwartzman’s attacking prowess was rewarded and for the third consecutive game a packed Philippe Chatrier watched on with a intriguing 15-40 score line. This time there would be no overtime. The 25-year old challenger capitalized on the first time of asking with an open court forehand down the line winner.
Nadal, however, bounced back immediately. Another 15-40 game and another break followed. Play was intense with long rallies, but not without mistakes from both sides. Proceedings were shaping up to be a long encounter, regardless whether they would play more than three sets.
In what almost seemed like tradition, the fifth game also went to 15-40. Nadal erased both opportunities for Schwartzman to break as the world no.12 overcooked his ground strokes. Nadal went on to hold and lead 3-2. Diego would return the favor with a quick service hold to love.
The seventh game had more of the same. Nadal again, was behind on his own service game at 15-40. Diego unleashed another couple of forehands to send Nadal running from left to right before finishing the easy volley in the open court. He now had the lead: 4-3. The French audience was buzzing with excitement.
Diego’s game was inspiring. Thus far Nadal had not played the aggressive type of style he is capable of. Trying to wear down Schwartzman by drawing him into long rallies to see how much gas the little man had left after his grueling five set match with Kevin Anderson in the fourth round. So far the tactic did not reap the results the Spaniard wished for. Diego had not committed many errors. But that was about to change. In the eighth game, yet another 15-40 score and as Diego netted his backhand drive all was square yet again: 4-4.
No player was able to ride any momentum still. Nadal avoided the dreaded 15-40 scoreline on his serve for the first time to get to 30-30 but still had to watch two forehands fly by as Diego took the break with his 17th winner of the match. Rafa had notched up just three. During the change-over Nadal had called for the physio but a time-out seemed not necessary. Play resumed with Diego serving for the first set.
Uncharacteristically Nadal saved the second setpoint with a beautiful forehand drop shot that left Diego stunned. A deuce game ensued and Diego’s lion heart came back to roar at Rafa with an impressive backpedaling smash to get to his third set point.
Just when Diego was about to serve murmurs in the crowd indicated that someone was in need of medical attention. Play was halted for five minutes. Incredibly, Diego kept his composure, taking the first set with an immaculate running forehand down the line (and on the line). First set to the Argentine in one hour and 11 minutes of scintillating grueling clay court tennis: 6-4. Nadal had struck 15 unforced errors and notched up just four winners. Worrying statistic for the just turned 32-year old.
Nadal then took a medical time-out in which he got both his underarms taped. Could it be something was hampering him from playing his aggressive game? Still, Nadal conjured up a terrific pick up after a running slapped forehand from Diego as the second set kicked off. His response though was one without his trademark pumped fist and shout to the crowd.
Nadal was now missing more and more easy shots. Diego balanced his play with taking the ball early and keeping length on his shots to trouble the Spaniard. Umbrellas went up in the crowd as Diego took the break in the third game to lead 2-1. Nadal broke back immediately and finally we saw the fire in his eyes come back to life. Some consecutive loose shots from Diego for the first time in the match meant the score was leveled at 2-2 in the second set.
The twists and turns just kept on coming. As conditions continued to get worse and heavier for the players Nadal again lost his serve as Diego’s superfast ball striking proved too hot to handle. What followed was the inevitable as the raindrops started to pour down harder in numbers and play was suspended for more than half an hour.
When the players returned it was clear who benefitted more from the peptalk. Diego lost his way a bit while Nadal was stepping into the court more and more. Nadal broke back to get proceedings back on serve. After he held to to lead 4-3 Nadal then switched on the afterburners to break Schwartzman’s serve to love. When serving for the set at 30-15 rain again halted play. Only this time the forecast prompted the Roland Garros organizers to reschedule the match for Thursday’s order of play.
Play resumed at noon. Rafa’s concentration was palpable from the get-go. Winning the first two points of the day to get him the second set. It was clear Nadal was playing more and more aggressive and Schwartzman was having trouble finding his form he showed before the first rain delay on Wednesday. Nadal’s first real dagger in the third set was a drop shot to break the Schwartzman serve. A hold to love followed and yet another break for Nadal to give the Spaniard the two break cushion. It almost seemed as if Nadal never was in trouble during this match.
Muttering to himself all the way in the third set, Diego felt the consequences of not having a good first serve delivery against the King of Clay in terrific form. At 5-1 down he barely scraped out the game to at least make Rafa serve out the first set. An exciting game followed where Schwartzman had four break back opportunities. Shades of the first set from Schwartzman appeared, but it was too late. All his chances went begging and another long backhand from the Argentine sealed the third set for Nadal: 6-2
Diego’s fate was sealed. His frustration began to build and Nadal was ready to pounce on every opportunity. The Spaniard’s defenses looked impregnable again. In the third game of the fourth set Nadal broke to love and it seemed all but over. Still Nadal had to face a break point, which he expunged with a lovely drop shot.
Nadal went on to hold and immediately put pressure back on his opponent’s serve. Keeping the length in the rally Diego tried to do the same but his backhand failed him once again as he sent it long to again hand Nadal the double break advantage with a comfortable looking 4-1 scoreline. The wheels had now completely come off and everything Nadal touched turned to gold.
A magnificent exchange at 15-15 in the sixth game. Beautiful attacking forehands ensued and Diego managed to put them all back in play before the last ground stroke of Rafa killed the rally. It was all an indication of how Diego’s efforts all were futile in the end. He battled through a service hold that saw Nadal miss his first match point. Nadal, however, would return from the changeover to try and clinch the match at 5-2.
Nadal would keep on pressing and Diego kept fighting on tirelessly but he couldn’t prevent Nadal to see finish line at 40-15. A backhand error from Rafa gave Diego a slimmer of hope. After also withstanding Nadal’s third match point in total Schwartzman upped the intensity to get to break point but a lovely little cat and mouse exchange at the net in which Nadal had the upper hand. Schwartzman did not back down. A fabulous backhand cross court winner gave him his second chance to break and prolong this exciting match. Nadal immediately returned the favor with a backhand winner down the line.
The moment of triumph came at his fourth opportunity. PUshing his adversary back he claimed victory with his trademark forehand in the corner. His jubilant way of celebrating the win said it all. Diego had earned his respect and that of the French crowd. But the upset wasn’t to be.
Nadal is into his eleventh semifinal at Roland Garros and he’s still in the race to claim an unprecedented eleventh French Open crown. He awaits the winner of the other quarterfinal match between Del Potro and Cilic, who at the time of writing, are entangled in a thriller themselves.
The question that remains is the same one the tennis world has for years now: Who can possibly stop this man from winning Roland Garros? Again.. As it looks right now the answer is still: No one!
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