Rafael Nadal came through his first test of the French Open to beat Felix Auger-Aliassime 3-6 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-3 and set up a quarter-final clash with Novak Djokovic.
After brushing aside Botic van de Zandschulp, Nadal found himself second best early on and lost his first set of the tournament.
He weathered a storm in the second before going through the gears and taking charge, only for Auger-Aliassime to battle back and force the Spanish great to win in five sets.
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“It has been an important victory for me, without a doubt,” Nadal said. “I did not start the match well. It was a tough first set for me.
“After coming back, I finished the third playing well and then the fourth was tough.
“It was difficult, he has a huge serve. He puts you under pressure and I was not able to push him back
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“I had to do something different at the end of the match. I am happy about the attitude at the end as I played more aggressive and went more to the net and that made a difference.”
Nadal paid tribute to Auger-Aliassime, as he said: “He did a lot of things well. He has been improving every year. I wish him all the best, he is a great guy.”
Commenting on the clash with Djokovic, Nadal said: “We know each other well and have a lot of history.
“We are in Roland-Garros, it is my favourite place and I will be focused.
“I will try my best as always, I do not know what will happen, but I can guarantee and I will fight until the end.”
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Whether Nadal was jaded after watching Real Madrid win the Champions League on Saturday evening, we may never know. But he made a slow start. In contrast, Auger-Aliassime was razor sharp and hungry to chase down everything and return it with interest.
The Canadian’s effervescence helped him work a double break and even though he handed one back cheaply, was able to close out the opening set to become the first player to take one off Nadal this week.
Nadal came under huge pressure at the start of the second set, and had to dig deep to hold his serve in the opening game. He did so, and it sparked him into life.
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The 13-time French Open champion added pace to his forehand in the second set and it changed the dynamic of the contest. Nadal began to get cheap service games, and he worked a break of his own to get back on level terms in the contest.
Nadal carried the momentum from the second set into the third, and the pressure began to tell on Auger-Aliassime whose serve was broken twice as Nadal took control of the contest.
The script said that Nadal would race away with the contest. Auger-Aliassime had not read it, as he found his level from the first set at a time when Nadal’s intensity drifted, and he was able to force a deciding set.
It was only the third time at Roland-Garros that Nadal had been taken to five sets. Despite putting everything in, Auger-Aliassime went the same way as John Isner and Djokovic.
As the temperature dropped in Paris, the snap went from Nadal’s groundstrokes. But as on so many occasions before, he found a way on Philippe-Chartier to get the job done to win an epic encounter.
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