There was no Grand Slam title at stake, but the tension and standard of play couldn’t have been higher as top-ranked Novak Djokovic and 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal met for the 59th time Tuesday night. Nadal won 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4), in front of a capacity crowd on Court Philippe-Chatrier, keeping alive the possibility of adding to his record number of French Open trophies and extending his men’s record total of 21 Grand Slam titles. In doing so, he denied Djokovic a chance to equal his Grand Slam record — at least for this tournament.
After winning the tiebreaker on his fifth match point, Nadal appeared to hold back tears during his on-court interview, thanking the crowd in French for their support and explaining that Roland Garros, where he is 110-3, has been the most special place in his career. In English, he praised Djokovic and the challenge he provides. “There’s only one way to beat Novak: play your best from the first point to the last,” Nadal said. For the fifth-seeded Nadal, two obstacles remain: a semifinal Friday, on his 36th birthday, against third-seeded Alexander Zverev, who defeated teen sensation Carlos Alcaraz in four sets, and the championship match on Sunday, if he wins.
Coco Gauff advances to her first Grand Slam semifinal at the French Open. The toll of Tuesday’s quarterfinal, a bruising battle that lasted 4 hours 12 minutes and ended shortly after 1 a.m. local time, may prove to be the most difficult opponent of all. Nadal, who fractured a rib during a tournament in March and is battling a chronic pain condition in his left foot, brought his doctor to the French Open. During his post-match press conference, he admitted for the second time in three days that each match he plays at the French Open could be his last, given his foot condition and uncertainty about how long he can continue.
“I’m doing everything I can to play this tournament in the best conditions possible, no?” Nadal stated. “I honestly don’t know what can happen after that… I still enjoy playing on nights like tonight. But isn’t this just a quarterfinals match? As a result, I did not win anything. So I just give myself a chance to get back on the court in two days and compete in another semifinal here at Roland Garros.” No one can push Nadal harder than Djokovic, 35, and no one can push Nadal harder than Djokovic. Djokovic leads their rivalry 30-29, while Nadal increased his lead on clay to 20-8.
Djokovic, who was deported from Australia after a failed legal challenge over his coronavirus vaccination status, had no problem admitting he lost to a better player in his first Grand Slam of the season. “He demonstrated why he’s a great champion by staying mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did,” said Djokovic. For long stretches, two factors conspired to make winning one point a soul-crushing ordeal. Nadal and Djokovic are so familiar with each other’s games, having first competed as teenagers at the 2006 French Open, that they’re wired to predict where the ball will go, much like longtime partners finish each other’s sentences.
They’re also such expert movers on the tricky red clay of the French Open, able to time their slides to perfection, that they can cover almost every inch. Novak Djokovic won the second set but blew a big lead in the fourth. Reuters/Yves Herman As a result, opera-length rallies demanded something extraordinary — a shot the other couldn’t possibly recover — to bring them to a close. An ace or the one-two punch of a service blast that set up a winner decided very few points. Nadal needed nearly twice as long as Djokovic to beat Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round on Sunday, taking 4 hours and 21 minutes.
But he seemed determined to dispel any notion that he was depleted from the start on Tuesday. The first game set the tone: 10 minutes of blistering pace, incredible “gets,” and three break points. A raucous crowd warmed up to the fight on a cool night. This was the match that tennis fans had been anticipating since the tournament’s lopsided 128-player men’s draw was revealed. The humble drop shot is making a comeback in the top ranks of tennis. Djokovic and Nadal, who have 41 Grand Slam titles and 15 French Open titles between them, were drawn in the same half of the draw as Alcaraz, who beat both on clay in early May.
Following an injury-related early exit from the recent clay-court event in Rome, Nadal’s ranking dropped to No. 5, and he was drawn to face Djokovic in the quarterfinals. While the fans didn’t want to see the match so early in the tournament, Nadal didn’t want to play it at night because cool temperatures change how the red clay behaves, taking some of the bounce out of his signature, high-caroming forehands. But it wasn’t a night for wrangling in the stands or on the court. Their rivalry is the greatest in men’s tennis history. With both players in their mid-30s, Tuesday’s match could be their final on a Grand Slam stage. After his five-set victory over Auger-Aliassime, Nadal admitted as much.
“To be honest, I don’t know if every match I play here is going to be my last match here at Roland Garros.” “That’s my current situation,” he explained. Tuesday, Nadal was the sharper, more focused player, bolting to an early lead and winning the first set in 52 minutes. Djokovic improved every aspect of his game after falling behind early in the second set. Nadal then reclaimed the lead, leading two sets to one. However, after falling behind 1-4 in the fourth set, Nadal fought back. He walloped a forehand winner to get on serve and tie the game at 5-5, then forced the tiebreaker, which he won.
When asked about his rivalry with Djokovic, Nadal said Tuesday’s match was a “super classic match” and the latest chapter in a long story. But what he really wanted to talk about was what he, Djokovic, and Roger Federer had accomplished in their careers — a combined total of 61 Grand Slam titles that he doesn’t believe can be quantified. “Of course, there is always a debate about who has the most Slams or who is the best in history,” he said. “However, from my perspective, [that] doesn’t really matter. We realize our ambitions. We make history in this sport by doing things that have never been done before. From my perspective, our three levels are very close — there isn’t much of a difference, so it doesn’t matter.”