By Jane Voigt
Andy Murray is the top seed at this year’s French Open, but most eyes are on Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, seeded two and four respectively. They both landed in the bottom half of the men’s singles’ draw and are on a collision course to meet in that semifinal.
Their performances and results today were about as far apart as New York and Los Angeles. Nadal trounced Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-0, 6-1, 6-0. Djokovic battled Diego Schwartzman for five sets, winning 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-1.
“I was expecting a difficult game with a lot of rallies from the baseline because the conditions are heavy,” Djokovic said on court, after his victory. “I want to congratulate Diego for a great battle because he played very well.”
Indeed! The five-foot-eight Argentine went toe to toe with one of the greatest baseline players we’ve ever seen, a winner of 12 Grand Slams and the defending champion at this tournament. Schwartzman was down in the opening set and in the third, yet his courage and ball striking were evident even when rallies extended beyond 20 shots. The French fans on Court Philippe-Chatrier showed their appreciation with lots of waves, which they love.
The match went well over three hours.
Meanwhile, Nadal’s beatdown lasted 90 minutes. It was his 100th best-of-five win on red clay in Paris. His record … 98-2.
“Today was one of the best matches I have ever played,” Nadal told the press, rolandgarros.com reported. “I am really happy because I have a really good feeling. Every day my training is going very well, my practice. When I have a match, I play very well.”
Basilashvili, who’s from Georgia, is ranked 63rd in the world. His loss should be viewed as a positive step, though. This was his third appearance in Paris and the first time he’s pushed through to the third round. He upset Frenchman Gilles Simon (No. 31) in the opening round and went on to take out Victor Troicki next. Formidable achievements. However, disappointment and humiliation could override those facts in the short-term.
“He’s a much, much better player than I am, obviously,” Ricky Dimon tweeted.
Better is best explained with math. According to deadspin.com, Nadal’s drubbing was his third best match in Paris. He won 69.5% of ‘available points,’ or 82 points to his opponent’s 36 points. The two other beatdowns happened in Paris, as well, against Sam Groth last year and Dusan Lajovic in 2014.
Nadal turns 31 tomorrow and will continue his uplifted mood with a birthday celebration. “Celebrate? Of course. This is Roland-Garros,” he began. “I will try perhaps to go out for dinner with my gamily. But it’s an important week for me here, and I think I do need to remain focused above all.”
Djokovic’s mood against Schwartzman was anything but uplifting, especially after he went up two sets to one. The Serbian’s temper flared, which countered comments to the press.
“I was mentally still, you know, strong and calm as I could be even though I was two sets to one down,” he said. “I kept believing I could break his resistance. It was just too many unforced errors from myself.”
Yet midway through the fourth set, up 4-0, Chair-umpire Carlos Ramos had had enough of Djokovic’s unsportsmanlike behavior and attitude.
Ramos handed him a time violation, for a loss of a point. Players are only allowed 20 seconds between points at Grand Slams and Djokovic had pushed the limit. He was averaging 28 seconds. Djokovic seemed to put the hiccup behind him, but he hadn’t. In the same game, he gave the appearance that he wanted to hit a ball directly at Ramos while he mouthed off at him in Serbian.
“What did I say?” Novak yelled, as he approached the chair. “Do you understand Serbian?”
His anger plus a probable gut-wrenching fear that he might lose the match helped Djokovic elevate his game. However, Schwartzman’s back had begun to tighten. A trainer massaged it during a changeover, but the injury caused him to flounder. Errors piled up as Djokovic pummeled shots.
“He was the better player probably for first three sets,” Novak said. “And then the fourth and fifth went the way I hoped that the whole match would go.”
Maybe that’s what he had to tell himself to overcome his cranky act on court. But, it didn’t do much to endear him to fans, even if he lead a standing ovation for Schwartzman as he left the court.
“Conditions were quite suitable to his style of the game,” Djokovic said. “Very muddy, very slow, no bounce. He could get a lot of balls back and could play them very flat. So I’m glad that have some positives to take from today’s match.”
Schartzman should, though, be proud, even with Djokovic’s condescending comments. Diego’s third-round appearance was his first at any major. In comparison, Djokovic is playing in this 13th French Open and his 50th major.
Nadal and Djokovic have a day off, now. On Sunday Nadal plays Roberto Bautista Agut (No. 17) and fellow Spaniard. Djokovic plays another Spaniard, Alberto Ramos-Vinolas (No. 19). He likes slow red clay, too.