Watching the two best players in the world being fully tested by players destined to take over their roles, proved to be the highlight of the fourth round at the French Open. And that change could come about in the not too distant future if their fourth round performances are anything to go by.
Now I know how I can play, how far I am from the top on the Tour, like Nole. So I know that if I play good I can stay at this level. Lorenzo Musetti
Novak Djokovic, the world number one, will have breathed a huge sigh of relief at clearing the tricky hurdle represented by the 19-year-old Italian, Lorenzo Musetti, who in turn will be rueing the fact that he was forced to retire injured!
The teenager was not in awe of the great Serb despite playing in his first ever Major and appearing on one of the greatest tennis arenas in the world. He took the fight to the top seed and while the pair exchanged breaks in the opening set, it was the youngster who claimed it on the tie-break.
The two enacted a similar scenario in the second where again, it was Djokovic who found himself being out-played in the tie-break by his young opponent and, after two hours of tight play found himself two set to love down.
That situation must have been a chilling experience for the 18-time, 34-year-old grand slam winner chasing his second title at Roland Garros, so he decided on a break to change his clothes and refresh himself in an attempt to find the answer to the questions being asked by the teenager.
The match certainly changed on his return for 90-minutes later, Djokovic was raising his arms aloft in victory after Musetti threw in the towel having lost the last 16 of 17 games allowing the top seed to take up his allotted quarter-final place with a 6-7(7) 6-7(2) 6-16-0 4-0 victory.
Had Musetti not been affected by cramps and back issues during the latter stages of the match, then the biggest upset of the tournament was well on the cards. When the attacks or back problems started, is not clear, but he obviously needs to build up his physique and stamina if he is to fulfil what is obviously, his destiny.
“I came here to play my first Grand Slam in the main draw, and I made second week taking two sets against the World No. 1,” Musetti said later. “I think I take away a lot of feelings, a lot of emotions, but a lot of experience. Now I know how I can play, how far I am from the top on the Tour, like Nole. So I know that if I play good I can stay at this level.. I will go home, rest a bit, and work for Wimbledon.”
Djokovic meanwhile dismissed the fact that the was on the rack putting a positive twist to what had been a precarious situation for him.
“I would say, more nervous when I was starting the match than when I was two sets down,” Djokovic said.
“To be honest, I even liked the fact that I lost first couple of sets. I just played under certain kind of tension and wasn’t able to go through my shots, too many unforced errors and just not playing and not feeling great in the first couple of sets.
“But credit to him for playing well in important moments. After I lost the second set and went out to change and came back on the court, I just felt different. I was a different player. I have had better feeling in my shots. I had just more confidence going through the ball. I decreased the amount of errors. Started playing the way I was supposed to play at the beginning.”
Djokovic will now face another Italian Matteo Berrettini on Wednesday, who had an extra day off when Roger Federer withdrew giving him a walk over into the last eight.
“Big serve, big forehand, two big weapons,” said Djokovic looking ahead. “He’s in form. He finished the last year very strong. He started this year strong as well, beating Dominic Thiem in Australia, playing really good ATP Cup. He just has so much firepower in his game. Need to be at my best in order to have a chance to win.”
But it wasn’t just Djokovic who had to contend with an upstart teenager. Rafa Nadal had an equal handful in Jannik Sinner, another 19-year-old Italian who was climbing up the rankings fast.
Again, it was the youngster who took the match to his more experienced opponent but in this case, the experienced opponent was a player who is best know for his ability, especially on a clay court.
But while Nadal looked to be in trouble in the opening set, Sinner failed to capitalise on his opportunity of winning that opening set when serving for it at 5-3.
Not known for passive acceptance, the 13-time Roland Garros champion responded by winning the next 16 of 19 games to progress 7-5 6-3 6-0, helped somewhat by the 40 unforced errors from his young opponent.
“I think I started the first two games playing great,” Nadal said. “Then I had a bad game at 2-0 and with the wind helping, so that was a big mistake. Then I started to play too much against his backhand and too far from the baseline.
“I gave him the chance to be inside the court and to have control of the point from inside. From that position he’s dangerous. I was a little bit farther every time from the baseline.
“From that moment to 7-5, 4-0 I think I played a very good level of tennis,” Nadal said. “Then again, couple of mistakes and he played well, honestly. 4-3 until that moment to the end of the match, I think I played great.”
Sinner was realistic having now suffered three losses to the 20-time grand slam champion.
“I was up, serving for the set in the first set, but, it’s a long way to go to win against Rafa.
Obviously very disappointed how it went today. But as I said, he played better than me,” Sinner said.
“In the beginning he was playing well. Then at some point he was not pushing anymore the ball that hard, so I went up with the break. Then after he changed it once more. So the way to become to that level is very long, still very, very long. And, yeah, I just can say congrats to him.”
Nadal, who has won his last 35 sets he has played at Roland Garros and 34 straight matches, will now meet Diego Schwartzman of Argentina who came from 5-1 down and saved seven set points to eliminate Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff 7-6(9) 6-4 7-5.
“I love this country, I love Paris. I think my best tennis is always here,” Schwartzman told the crowd.
“It was not a good clay season, but when I came the first day here, I was feeling very well again. I’m very happy to be back, very happy to be in the quarter-finals again. I’m not very happy to maybe play Rafa in the next round, but let’s see what happens this time.”
The big question now is, will either Berretini or Schwartzman prevent that mouth-watering semi-final meeting between Djokovic and Nadal?