Opinion | Auger-Aliassime exits French Open after pushing Nadal to the breaking point. Clay-lah marches on

At the Court of the Crimson King, Félix Auger-Aliassime took Rafael Nadal where only two men had driven him before in Paris — to five sets.

Ultimately, the lanky and preternaturally cool Canadian fell one break short after scaring the bejeezus out of the Spaniard in pursuit of his record-extending 14th French Open title.

The blockbuster quarterfinal on Tuesday will instead showcase another ne plus ultra clash between Nadal and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Roland Garros will doubtless be aswirl with red dust from skidding slides.

Djokovic, by the way, was one of the aforementioned five-set pushers versus Nadal in the City of Light — in 2013. And he lost. American John Isner ditto in 2011.

A mere three complete five-setters over the course of Nadal’s 112 matches at this tournament. Auger-Aliassime can console himself with that.

“I’m proud about the effort I produced, the game I played, and like most of my matches I try to leave the match without any regrets,” the 21-year-old from Montreal said afterwards. “It does me good to prove it to myself, and to others, that I deserve my place in the last players of a tournament like this one.”

Nadal, of course, owns the French Open, where he’s claimed all but eight of his 21 Grand Slam championships. They’ve already erected a statue to the clay-court colossus from Mallorca on the premises.

El Toro, six days shy of his 36th birthday, covers more. Auger-Aliassime came Este close to denying him.

Rafa’s formidable will manifested itself in his moment of need, infusing him with an extra jolt of herculean athleticism in the eighth game of the level fifth set. Auger-Aliassime was down 0-30 on his serve when Nadal dug out a mighty return, then scooped up a ball from the rear of the court to pin back his opponent’s ears with two break opportunities. Auger-Aliassime saved the first one on a massive swerve up the middle.

Nadal, however, was relentless, unspooling vintage Rafa. As if time had rolled back, displaying his best sprint of the day, Nadal chased down a ball dropping for its second bounce and punched it beyond return reach — sheer brilliance, letting loose an ear-splitting roar as the adoring crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier leapt to his feet. He’d hold serve to finally rid himself of his nervous challenger after four hours and 23 minutes, prevailing 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

After just his third French Open five-setter, 13-time champion Rafael Nadal takes a moment with worthy Canadian opponent Félix Auger-Aliassime in Paris on Sunday.

“He’s a great player, one of the best in the world, with great power and mobility,” Nadal said in his on-court interview, after the players exchanged hugs at the net. “I wish him all the best for the rest of the season. He’s a great guy and a great colleague on tour.

“I didn’t start the match well… He has a huge serve and I was not able to push him back. In the end, I could go to the end, and that makes a difference.”

Indeed, Auger-Aliassime had rocked Nadal in the opening set: quickly finding his range, hitting with depth, forcing Nadal into errors and twice breaking him. In the second frame, he continued to swing freely, pulling Nadal forward from the baseline and coming to the net aggressively. But when Auger-Aliassime shanked a return, Nadal converted his third break-point chance to go up a break in a set for the first time, consolidated with a forehand put-away.

Nadal continued to rediscover his form — only nine unforced errors across the second and third sets to go up 2-1. Auger-Aliassime refused to go away, though, seizing an early break in the fourth set as the momentum shifted anew, laying down 14 winners to force a decider.

It could have gone either way, but Nadal asserted himself because nobody plays with more ferocity when his back is to the wall.

“Well, what made the difference is that I played a little bit better,” Nadal explained dryly, as if he hadn’t just come within a hair’s breadth of being bounced in a hugely dramatic match. “When I played not that well, I had a lot of troubles, no?”

Auger-Aliassime wouldn’t indulge in “what might have been” ruing: “He raised his level when he needed to.”

Maybe Nadal had drawn inspiration from his beloved Real Madrid. He’d spent the previous day in attendance at Stade de France outside Paris, watching The whites beat Liverpool 1-0 in the Champions League final.

Not in attendance at Roland Garros was Uncle Toni: Toni Nadal, who’d coached his nephew to 14 major crowns before they split in 2017 and is now part of the Auger-Aliassime team. Uncle Toni had avowed not to bear witness and not to give Auger-Aliassime tips for defeating his darling kinsman.

While Auger-Aliassime departs the fray, compatriot Leylah Fernandez is deftly into the quarters, the farthest the teenager from Laval, Que. — French junior champion three years ago — has ever penetrated in the big girls’ tournament at Roland Garros. The 19-year-old, a US Open finalist last summer, dispatched American Amanda Anisimova 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, in the round of 16.

Fernandez jumped out to a lightning start against her clearly nervous opponent, whipping backhand winners as she crafted a 4-0 lead in the first. Anisimova, only a year older at 21 — she took out Naomi Osaka in the first round — did start to settle down and Fernandez thereafter actually dropped service twice, requiring five set points to serve out that frame.

Anisimova took control in the second set with first-strike play, dominant on both wings. But Fernandez’s strong serve and precision strikes, to say nothing of her signature unflappable resolve from her, helped the teen escape triple break point in the second game of the third set as Anisimova was unable to get any traction on her returns from her.

Consecutive return winners constructed a break for 3-2, and a deep return at Anisimova’s feet induced an error that secured Fernandez’s second match point, nailed on a deep forehand. Fernandez struck 35 winners, made 17 errors and broke Anisimova six times.

Fernandez is seeded 17th, but only one top-10 seed — endlessly rolling Iga Swiatek — is still standing in the women’s draw. The Canadian next takes on Italy’s Martina Trevisan, ranked No. 59, lefty on lefty.

“Every time I step out on the court I still have something to prove,” Fernandez told reporters afterwards. “I still have that mindset (that) I’m the underdog. I’m still young, I still have a lot to show to the people, to the public.”

But she’s already earned herself a new nickname, at least from the French media: Clay-lah, in honor of her impressive run at Roland Garros. Ella she loves it.

“You know, I think it’s actually pretty amazing that they came up with Clay-lah because I have no creativity for that. I wouldn’t think of that nickname.”

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno


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