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Live Blog: Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal At The French Open

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Carl Bialik 1:10 PM So Long, And Thanks For All The Tennis

After the match, in a mostly sullen news conference, Nadal echoed many of the points we made here. Djokovic was the attacker, which enabled him to play so many drop shots. Nadal was not at his best, but will be back here next year. Djokovic is “probably in the best moment of his career.” And then there’s this, suggesting Nadal has a good grasp of probability and a future in sports analytics: “The only thing that is sure is I won [the French Open] nine times. I don’t know if I gonna win 10, but nine I already won.”

Djokovic meets the press in 15 minutes, but we’re going to end this live blog here. Thanks to everyone for reading. If you have any suggestions or ideas for how to live-blog tennis or other events in the future, feel free to email or tweet them to me. Now go watch that other men’s quarterfinal today — David Ferrer and Andy Murray are in the fourth set!

Rafael Nadal isn’t done playing tennis. At least that’s what he has said repeatedly at news conferences in Paris during this tournament. On Monday, he said, “If I don’t win, I will think about the next tournament. I will try to make progress.” And last Thursday he said he’d “leave this tour … in one, two, three, four, five, six years, whatever.” Speaking to the press a mere quarter-hour after his loss, Nadal vowed to return. He pointed out that when he lost here in 2009, it wasn’t over — he won the next five years. He said the same applies now.

Nevertheless, a friend who’s a Nadal fan flew in to Paris this morning, bought a ticket and got to the grounds before the match. He wanted to see RAFAEL NADAL at the French Open before it was too late. That’s the Nadal who was 66-1 heading into this year at Roland Garros, who’d been forced to a fifth set only twice and who’d won the title in nine of the past 10 years.

Unfortunately, my friend may have arrived a year too late. Nadal today was not the Nadal of past French Open triumphs. He showed flashes — in that furious comeback in the first set, in confidently holding serve early in the second — but then he did what Nadal isn’t supposed to do: He collapsed. He lost nine of the last 10 games. And it’s a credit to Nadal’s greatness at this tournament that this was so surprising. All great players have off days. Roger Federer was also straight-setted out of the tournament yesterday by Stan Wawrinka. Pete Sampras never made a final here.

I’m pretty sure, though, that the Novak Djokovic we saw today would have given even peak Nadal a tough fight. In every aspect of the game, including the tactical one, Djokovic was dominant. It’s difficult to say whether Djokovic today is the best player of all time. (Asked that question after Djokovic dismantled him Monday, Richard Gasquet said, “Federer can play some unbelievable tennis.”) But it’s also fairly clear that Djokovic isn’t done making his case. He has to win two more matches to win this title for the first time. Good luck finding someone taking even money to say he won’t.

CORRECTIONS (June 4, 10:21 a.m.): An earlier version of this post stated that Rafael Nadal had played a five-set match only once at the French Open. He has played two five-set matches. It also stated that Nadal had won the French Open four years in a row after losing in 2009. He won five years in a row.

Carl Bialik 12:17 PM 7-5, 6-3, 6-1, Djokovic

Nadal double-faults on match point — which Djokovic did against him in the 2012 final here — and it’s over. Djokovic was widely expected to win this match, but I doubt many people expected Nadal to win just nine games. What looked like an incredibly tough test for Djokovic — facing the best clay-courter ever on his favorite court — turned into yet another routine demolition of a fellow Top 10 player. Djokovic is playing some of the best tennis the sport has ever seen. The embrace at net was warm though brief, and Nadal got some cheers from the crowd as he walked off, though not what he deserves for all he has done here. I think mostly the crowd is dazed that it all ended so quickly. So am I.

Nadal keeps fighting, running down smashes and making Djokovic play another ball. But the world No. 1 is just too solid, and holds to move within a game of his first win over Nadal here in seven tries.

Nadal will fall to No. 10 in the rankings if he loses — and No. 11 if Jo-Wilfried Tsonga wins his semifinal Friday against Stan Wawrinka. Nadal hasn’t been ranked below No. 7 since he was 18, in April 2005.

That’s how aging goes in sports. On Nadal’s 29th birthday today, he’s regressed from his peak and is playing closer to how he did as a teenager taking the sport by storm. That doesn’t mean he can’t improve from here — Roger Federer bounced back last year from a tough 2013, even as he turned 33. But Nadal has a long way to climb to get back to the top, and with a lower ranking he’ll keep getting tough draws like today’s. Oh, and his favorite part of the season, the one on clay, pretty much ends today if he loses.

Benjamin Morris 12:10 PM

Carl and I talk all the time about whether players play major tournaments differently. Let’s use Nadal as an example: In his career, as noted below, Nadal had gone 94 straight best-of-five matches on clay without dropping the first two sets. That’s great! However, he has lost the “first two” sets of best-of-three matches 19 times (in 299 matches) — or about once every 16 matches.

We can calculate the odds of someone who loses at a rate of 19/299 going 94-0 using everyone’s favorite Excel function, binom.dist. (Like so, nerds: =BINOM.DIST(0,94,19/299,TRUE))

If events were totally random, the chance that Nadal would never lose the first two sets of 94 best-of-five matches: 0.2 percent.

Four of those instances when Nadal lost the first two sets have come this year (in 22 matches), and eight came in 2004 or earlier — before he won his first French Open (in 42 matches). In his 10-year peak between 2005 and 2014, he lost only seven matches on clay in straight sets, of 205 three-set matches.

Carl Bialik 12:08 PM 7-5, 6-3, 4-1, Djokovic

Nadal has often had trouble getting the love in Paris — the crowds preferred Roger Federer. And now he’s getting no love from the Parisian netcord, with Djokovic clinching yet another tight game with a net-cord winner. Nadal needs to extend the match long enough for the net-cord luck to even out.

He seemed prepared for defeat, should it come, when speaking in his news conference after his fourth-round win Monday. “My career won’t stop after the quarterfinal of Roland Garros,” Nadal said. “I have already lost at Roland Garros, and if I lose in the quarterfinal, it means that I would have lost against the best player in the world. Djokovic is an excellent player, is physically fit, and is in form.”

Carl Bialik 12:02 PM 7-5, 6-3, 3-0, Djokovic

A tight net cord is a great source of comic relief in tennis. Two players are firing at each other, among the very best in the world at what they do — and then a ball trickles over the net for a winner, not because of great spin and touch but because the shot happened to hit the net cord and fall on the other side. Djokovic just got one of those to fall his way on his third break point and now leads by two sets and two breaks. He certainly didn’t need the luck. At least at this point it looks like this stroke of luck won’t be decisive — Djokovic is leading by too much for any one point or game to matter. Then again, if Nadal mounts a comeback like he did in the first set, it might.

Carl Bialik 11:58 AM 7-5, 6-3, 3-0, Djokovic

One reason Djokovic has been so successful against Nadal is that he is willing to attack Nadal unpredictably. For instance, in big points on his serve — 30-30, deuce or facing break points — in three of their recent clay meetings, Djokovic has gone to Nadal’s forehand and backhand almost equally, and has been about as successful with both tactics. (That’s again courtesy of David Flatow, using Match Charting Project data.) Nadal favors Djokovic’s backhand, on big points and otherwise. Most opponents would naturally target Nadal’s backhand, but do anything too often in sports and you turn an opponent’s weakness into a strength. There’s evidence that players serve more conservatively on big points — for instance, double-faulting less often — but that, too, can become an exploitable pattern. Djokovic plays a great game and might also be a great game theorist.

Carl Bialik 11:50 AM 7-5, 6-3, 1-0, Djokovic

Djokovic steam-rolls on as Nadal hits a poor smash right at Djokovic and then misses the follow-up volley, to fall behind by a break right at the start of the third set. This is the fourth straight year they’re meeting in a final or de facto final here, and the fourth straight year in which Nadal had looked vulnerable coming in. This is the first time Djokovic has been able to come out in top form and capitalize on Nadal’s vulnerability, sustaining his level through two-plus sets.

Carl Bialik 11:43 AM 7-5, 6-3, Djokovic

Djokovic has just become the first man to win the first two sets in a best-of-five-set match on clay against Nadal. Can he become the first to straight-set him, and the second to beat him in Paris in 72 matches?

Speaking of serve-and-volley, Djokovic did it at deuce after Nadal had saved set points — and came up with a jaw-dropping, fist-pump-worthy half-volley winner. Usually when I see a player pull off an incredible shot like that, I assume he or she is about to regress to the mean. Not this time — Djokovic closed out the set on the next point.

Oh, and more good news for Djokovic: They’re watering the court.

Matt Wilansky 11:42 AM

For the first time in his career, Rafael Nadal finds himself down 0-2 in a best-of-five clay-court match. He’s played 95 of those.

11:38 AM

Carl Bialik 11:38 AM 7-5, 5-3, Djokovic

Djokovic gets the first break of the set and will serve for a two-sets-to-none lead over Nadal. I mentioned earlier that Djokovic has a knack for breaking Nadal in Nadal’s last service game of a set. If Djokovic holds here, he’ll have done it twice today.

Oh, and if Djokovic holds here, we’ll be in uncharted territory. Nadal has never lost the first two sets of a best-of-five set match on clay.

Carl Bialik 11:36 AM

I hear ESPN switched to the Andy Murray-David Ferrer tiebreaker a few minutes ago. With no floodlights here and a 2 p.m. start, men’s quarterfinals get played simultaneously, as do women’s quarterfinals. It’s like the last match of the group stage of a World Cup, only without any reason to prevent tactical losing. (Unless Murray and Ferrer really don’t want to play the winner of this match.) Murray, like Djokovic, is undefeated on clay this year, which is stunning considering he’d never reached a clay final before this year.

Carl Bialik 11:29 AM 7-5, 4-3, Djokovic

What is this, Wimbledon? Both men have started coming to net more often, and done so effectively. These two — with their baseline-based games and heavy topspin — are the poster children for how the modern game has forsaken serve-and-volley tennis, and we won’t see much of that here. But it’s nice to see, despite earlier misses, that they’re both willing to come in behind strong shots. Rod Laver would be proud.

This set has moved comparatively quickly, with relatively easy holds for both men. Djokovic is asking for the court to be watered, which is done regularly on clay to make it less dusty and easier to grip with tennis shoes. The drier conditions suit Nadal, whose topspin forehand explodes more off a dry court.

Djokovic is playing well in spite of it. Although Nadal won four games in a row in the first set, Djokovic has felt in control of this match throughout. Roger Federer, who has lost 23 of 33 matches against Nadal, often has said he feels like he is in control of the outcome when they meet. And in a sense, he’s right — but Nadal makes him take too many risky shots, and miss too often. Djokovic is the aggressor here, and is in control. And he’s not missing much.

And, as happens so much in the live-blogging (and TV commentating) business, just as you’re trying to impose narrative on sports, events shatter it. Call it regression to the mean. Nadal seizes control from 15-30 in his service game with two good approach shots and net putaways and then wins the game with an unreturned second serve. He hasn’t lost control quite yet.

11:16 AM

Benjamin Morris 11:15 AM

Nadal is 12-1 in five-set matches on clay after dropping the first set (93-1 overall), including against Djokovic in last year’s French Open finals, where he lost the first set 6-3 before winning the next three 7-5, 6-2, 6-4. Despite this, Djokovic’s chances on Pinnacle have remained around 85-89 percent since he won the first set. Markets don’t care much about history.

Carl Bialik 11:12 AM

The press seats are great in Chatrier, except no outlets. I’m switching laptops — and we’re barely into the second set!

Carl Bialik 11:10 AM 7-5, 2-1 Djokovic

Let’s take a closer look at the drop shot. It’s a popular weapon on clay, for a couple of reasons: Players stay farther back in the court to handle the high bounce, and the surface reacts sharply to the shot’s sidespin and backspin, keeping it low and swerving away from the player rushing to play it.

But it’s a dangerous shot to use against either of these players, because they are so fast and so good at handling the shot, often by countering with a drop shot of their own — as Djokovic did in Nadal’s first service game of the second set.

We know that when these two play each other on clay, Djokovic uses the tactic much more than Nadal does. We know this because of the work of volunteers who chart matches, shot by shot, and because of the help of David Flatow, a data-science graduate student at Stanford, whom I’ve been working with to analyze the charting stats.

According to Flatow’s analysis of three recent matches between the pair on clay, they each hit a drop shot to each other’s forehand twice, but Djokovic hit 23 drop shots toward Nadal’s backhand, compared with just five by Nadal to Djokovic’s backhand. They each won the point about three out of five times they employed it. That’s not as impressive as it sounds, because players usually hit the shot when they are already in control of the point. But it’s a strategy that pays off even when it’s not used, by keeping the opponent honest. Djokovic likes it partly because he’s very good at executing it, and also because he typically stands closer to the net, making it easier to pull off.

Keep watching for the drop shot — it has already played a big role in this match and likely will continue to do so.

Carl Bialik 11:00 AM Djokovic, 7-5, 0-0

Net play decided the set’s decisive game. Djokovic won the game’s first point and then — perhaps mindful of his miss earlier — didn’t come to net even when he had Nadal stretched wide. That allowed Nadal to take over the point and win. Then Nadal hit a volley that wasn’t quite good enough to finish the point at 30-15, got an easy lob from Djokovic, and, in a huge rarity for him, missed the smash. Djokovic got yet another set point, Nadal came forward, Djokovic hit a better lob — and Nadal’s smash almost went into the net, but trickled over the cord for a winner. Djokovic got another set point with a confident backhand volley winner. Then at deuce yet again, this time he did come forward to play a Nadal slice at net, and he smashed it for a winner. Then Djokovic forced a volley miss by Nadal with a great forehand to take the first set.

By the way, this match is 67 minutes old now. That’s longer than the two sets Serena Williams needed to win the previous match on court. These guys play long sets. Their 2012 Australian Open final was five sets and took nearly six hours. Good thing they give us lots of material to write!

Matt Wilansky 10:58 AM

Lost in the sauce today: Andy Murray. He’s a two-time French Open semifinalist, and if he can escape David Ferrer without extending himself too much (they’re playing now on another court), Murray might be able to exploit a weary Djokovic or Nadal in the next round. With one more win, Murray will tie the great Fred Perry for the most match wins at the French Open by a Brit (28).

Another example of the market responding to form: Djokovic’s chances (according to Pinnacle) jumped from about 75 percent (where they’ve been lingering as both players have held serve) to about 82 percent after pushing Nadal on the game Nadal was serving down 5-4, even though Nadal eventually won.

Carl Bialik 10:48 AM 6-5, Djokovic, 1st set

Djokovic holds easily, with yet another drop shot followed by a lob winner. If Nadal holds and we get a tiebreaker, it’ll be a relatively rare occurrence in this rivalry. They’ve played just 12 tiebreakers in 43 matches, with Nadal winning eight. Their last tiebreaker was seven matches and almost two years ago! It goes to show how return-dominated the rivalry is. The more likely players are to break, the less likely they are to break the same number of times in a set and get to six games apiece. Both men have served fairly well today, yet four of the 11 games so far have been breaks.

Matt Wilansky 10:47 AM

Hard to believe, but Rafael Nadal has played Novak Djokovic 11 more times (44) than he’s played Roger Federer. It’s the most prolific matchup in the Open era. As for Djokovic, he’s played Federer 39 times, the second-most-frequent head-to-head. We often speak of Andy Roddick being around in the worst possible era, but no one has had to face more roadblocks down the stretch of major tournaments than Djokovic.

Matt Wilansky 10:46 AM

How important is the first set for these two guys? Djokovic is 16-3 when he wins the first set versus Nadal. Nadal is 20-4 when he wins the first set versus Djokovic.

Carl Bialik 10:44 AM 5-5, 1st set

Djokovic has a knack, since 2011, of breaking Nadal in Nadal’s final service game of the set, and he very nearly did it here, forcing Nadal to save three set points. Djokovic got the second with yet another backhand-to-backhand drop shot followed by an impeccable lob that Nadal somehow almost chased down. (Have we mentioned these guys are really good?) Nadal saved it with one of his own. Then, at deuce, Nadal got his first time-violation warning. It doesn’t cost him anything, but the second will cost a first serve. Nadal routinely goes over the 20-second limit between serves at Grand Slams, but players — and many ex-players-turned-commentators — think it’s bad form to call one on a critical point. Djokovic won the next point and then Nadal saved yet another set point with yet another backhand-to-backhand drop shot before closing out the longest game of the match so far.

Benjamin Morris 10:34 AM

I’ve been watching the betting markets, and they’ve been swinging rapidly as they respond not only to new match situations but to any clues as to who is in better form. For example, according to sports-betting site Pinnacle Sports, Djokovic was about 88 percent to win the match when leading Nadal 4-2, giving the defending champion only a 12 percent chance. But after Nadal’s break at 4-2, Djokovic dropped to 76 percent – doubling Rafa’s chances.

Carl Bialik 10:33 AM 5-4, Djokovic, 1st set

Djokovic holds at love and moves within a game of winning this set despite Nadal’s comeback. The first set matters, of course, but it’s not entirely predictive of who’s going to win. It matters less here, first of all, because like at all Grand Slams but unlike most of their 43 meetings, it’s a best-of-five-set match. So any one set matters less. Nadal has won seven of eight of their meetings in best-of-fives when winning the first set and one of three when losing it. Two of the wins in the Grand Slam rivalry by a player who lost the first set have come in their last five meetings — including in last year’s final here.


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