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Novak, Rafa tutor young Italians how the job is done

The sun-kissed Court Philippe-Chatrier was calling it a day, welcoming the night session. The two clashes between teens and titans presented a similar contrast, gulf in fitness, skills and mindset between two fast-rising, 19-year-old Italians and their rivals, in their mid-thirties and indomitable forces in world tennis.

If Novak Djokovic gave Grand Slam debutant Lorenzo Musetti a lesson on preserving physical resources in best-of-five encounters, Rafael Nadal produced a masterclass for Jannik Sinner in the art of controlling, adapting and eventually dominating a contest, from the racquet and the head in a straight-sets victory.

The Djokovic-Musetti tussle first up resembled a boxing bout where both boxers throw punches till the final round and the winner is decided on technical superiority. Only in this case, it was physical superiority, with Musetti retiring while trailing 0-4 in the fifth set, having taken a medical timeout at the start.

Musetti has been touted as the standout among the richly talented young crop of Italian pros, and his first stroll in the park with the big boys proved why. It’s rare to see Djokovic, with his elasticity, beaten and outstretched at the baseline. A pony-tailed kid was shaking up the world No. 1’s solid game with craftily angled one-handed backhand winners, explosive shots off the forehand, and drop shots that made the Serb scramble. Well, there was even a no-look backhand volley winner.

But all that razzle-dazzle was chipping away ounces of energy from the young body, and after two hours and 21 minutes, having eked out two tie-breakers, Musetti was out of gas, let alone fire, in the next three sets (6-1, 6-0, 4-0 retired).

For a large part of the first two sets, Djokovic felt the heat of engaging in rallies. In the first set, Musetti matched Djokovic in rallies of more than nine shots (both won eight points each) and bettered the Serbian machine in the second by winning 12 points to Djokovic’s seven.

Thereafter, the rally power balance tilted; in the third set, Djokovic won seven points to Musetti’s three in over nine-shot rallies; in the fourth Musetti failed to win a single point in rallies of more than five shots; in the final four games, Djokovic bagged six points to none by the Italian in exchanges of over nine shots.

Musetti had got a taste of a five-setter for the first time only in the previous round against Marco Cecchinato, but Djokovic—showing no frustration even after going two sets down—knew repeating that against him wouldn’t be that easy. “I like to play young guys in best-of-five because I feel even if they are leading a set or two sets to love, I still like my chances,” he said. “I feel like I’m physically fit and I know how to wear my opponent down in the best-of-five match.

“It’s unfortunate that for a young player like him, being two sets to love up… he was unable to physically sustain the level to at least give himself a chance to win this match.”

Musetti, who has risen to world No. 76 after being outside the top-100 in rankings at the start of the year, acknowledged that he played his best tennis but still does not possess the fitness to complement that in a Major. “… I had some problems with my physical part. I think I have to work there,” he said.

His 19-year-old compatriot too was left with work to do if he wants to match the top guys. Compared to Musetti, Sinner is more experienced on the Tour, having won two ATP 250 titles and made the Miami Masters final this year, and played five slams before Roland Garros.

Sinner had faced the 13-times champion twice earlier and was the only player last year to place some obstacles during the Spaniard’s ruthless run in Paris last October. Like in that autumn night when he held a set point in the opener, Sinner led 5-3 on Monday courtesy a few thunderbolts from the baseline. Serving for the set though the Italian made three unforced errors and dished out a double fault to be broken at love.

Nadal, who by the end of the first set realised he was allowing Sinner to dictate play by constructing points from way behind the baseline; he quickly course corrected by taking the pace off the ball, meeting returns more at the net and altering his court position to control the rallies.

Nadal raced to the net 13 times, winning 12 of those points (he doubled his frequency to the net in the second set) while Sinner won 8/17. Nadal had 5/7 points on volleys to none for Sinner; Nadal—the master of longer duels—won 46 points in rallies of less than four shots, almost twice as many as Sinner (26). Nadal upped the winners count (31 to 11) while Sinner began wobbling with his first serves (he won 57% points on first serve in the first set, which fell to 25% and 38% in the second and third).

The 13-time French Open champion adapted his game to disrupt his opponent. Sinner, despite his compact baseline game showing cracks, soon looked a bit lost without a Plan B. From 5-5 in the first set, Nadal won six games straight, and save for a blip when he was broken twice in the second set, coasted.

While Musetti’s body cracked in the end, for Sinner it was the mind. A bagel in the third set wrapped up the most unproductive of his three clay-court dates with the maestro.

“When you play against top guys like him, Roger or Novak, it’s tough to play because they are very strong mentally,” Sinner said. “Today’s tennis match gives me the answer that I already knew—that the way is still very long.”

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