It’s Djokovic vs Nadal, the French Open rematch we’ve been waiting for


It's Djokovic vs Nadal, the French Open rematch we've been waiting for

PARIS – As kids like to say these days, it’s on.

Much sooner than many might have hoped, Novak Djokovic, the reigning French Open champion, will face Rafael Nadal, a 13-time champion at Roland Garros, in a quarterfinal match on Tuesday, the first rematch of two of the leading men’s players since their epic semi-finals last June.

It took some of Nadal’s greatest tennis to survive a five-set, four-hour, 21-minute thriller on Sunday night against Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime, but the match so many long for is on the horizon.

“A huge challenge and probably the biggest one you can have here at Roland Garros,” Djokovic said, awaiting Nadal after his fourth straight win 6-1 6-3 6-3, a thumping at Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman . “I’m ready for this.”

Perhaps more so than Nadal, who survived one of the great scares of his illustrious career at the French Open against Auger-Aliassime, the athletic and tireless Canadian with a booming serve and big forehand.

“We have a lot of history together,” Nadal said of Djokovic.

They have played each other 58 times with Djokovic holding a 30-28 lead. It’s a classic clash of styles, Nadal blasting away and running wild on the clay, his favorite surface, and Djokovic bringing exquisite timing, peerless steel and the most diverse arsenal in the game.

More than that, it’s a coming together of two men whose personalities and careers have propelled them into different areas of the sport and public consciousness, particularly over the past year. One is a beloved citizen of the world, the other a polarizing, outspoken iconoclast so entrenched in his beliefs that he was willing to spend his last prime on the sidelines rather than undergo a Covid-19 vaccination.

There were scattered boos as Djokovic was unveiled at Suzanne Lenglen Court on Sunday. The fans in the main square, Philippe Chatrier, chanted “Rafa, Rafa” all evening and crowded the Spanish champions, who are immortalized with a nine-foot statue outside the stadium.

Ever since Djokovic pulled off the near impossible by beating Nadal at the French Open last year, Nadal has fought indirectly with his main rival.

Djokovic did everything he could to pull away from Nadal and Roger Federer in the Grand Slam tournament titles last year and almost did it, celebrating the Big Three with 20 wins apiece for six months and just one game away. Nadal, who mostly ended his 2021 season after the French Open with a chronic foot injury, said he didn’t mind ending his career with the most major championships.

Djokovic has refused to be vaccinated, questioning established science. Nadal got vaccinated a long time ago because he is a tennis player and cannot question what experts say is best for public health.

Djokovic has sought to spearhead an independent players’ organization, the Professional Tennis Players Association, which he launched in 2020 with a handful of other players. Nadal has refused to join the group and remains a member of the players’ council of the ATP, which he has kept Djokovic’s organization outside of the sport’s decision-making process.

On the pitch, they stole each other’s most prized possessions. After beating Nadal in the semifinals last year, Djokovic erased a two-set deficit and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final to win his second French Open title.

In January, after being largely inactive for six months and unsure if his foot would ever allow him to play again, Nadal won the Australian Open, which Djokovic had won nine times, more than any other Grand Slam -Competition.

Djokovic had won three consecutive Australian Opens and traveled to the country expecting to defend his titles. He tested positive for Covid-19 and recovered in mid-December. He figured that should get him entry into the country, despite its strict rules banning unvaccinated visitors. He was arrested at the border and deported after government officials viewed his anti-vaccination stance as a public health threat.

As the controversy unfolded, Nadal said he felt sorry for his rival in a way, and then kicked Djokovic a bit in the dirt, who was locked up in a Melbourne hotel with asylum seekers.

“He has known the conditions for many months,” said Nadal, “so he makes his own decision.”

Shadow sparring continued in Paris. Djokovic complained that the ATP did not include his player organization in their talks with Wimbledon after the tournament banned players from Russia and Belarus in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The tour responded by announcing it would not award ranking points for the event, a move Nadal defended as necessary to protect all players.

They even have different approaches to their careers. Djokovic said on Sunday that being No. 1 at the beginning of each season was “always the highest goal, especially in the era with Federer, Nadal”.

A few hours later, Nadal, currently in fifth place, said he had never paid attention to his placement. Just a number. Not important to him.

With their showdown now less than 48 hours away, the conversation has shifted to whether they will play during the day or night, with each letting tournament organizers know their preference.

Nadal prefers to play during the day when the weather is warmer and the ball bounces high off the sand right into his wheelhouse and off his racquet.

Djokovic excels at night, especially in Australia and the US Open when conditions are colder and slower. His match against Nadal last year turned as the sun went down, the temperature dropped and Nadal struggled to get the ball around the court. Nadal said last week he doesn’t believe tennis on clay courts should be played at night. Too cold and too wet which causes the clay to stick to the balls and give them the feel of heavy rocks on his racquet.

Nadal won Sunday’s first planning battle, playing his match at Philippe Chatrier Court. Organizers placed Djokovic in second place, Suzanne Lenglen, a smaller and more open venue with only one tier of seating, making it vulnerable to strong winds.

Djokovic managed the challenge, making Schwartzman seem like a sparring partner, forcing Djokovic to run and stay on court long enough – just over two hours – but not for too long. After a spirited sprint to the net for a perfectly sprung drop-shot return, he put his finger to his ear and begged the crowd to give him his share.

Nadal had no such concerns despite struggling in the cool and windy evening from the start. Forty minutes into the game he was 5-1 down and had two breaks of serve, the rarest of occurrences for someone coming into the game with a 108-3 record.

Nadal often neatly kicks the tie knot in the middle of the baseline before heading to his chair for a switch. With Auger-Aliassime pumping his fist after winning the first set 6-3, Nadal spent a few extra seconds working the line with his foot and seemingly taking an extra moment to focus on the challenging pitches in this one prepare game.

Nadal seemed to take control of the game by winning the second and third sets, but unlike Djokovic this year at Roland Garros, Nadal has been far from clinical, missing opportunities to face opponents like the assassin he has seen in previous ones years was to switch off.

It happened again on Sunday. In the end, in the crucial moments of the final two games of the final set, it took a magical forehand flick from flight to earn a passing shot down the line, a rushing sprint to catch up to a drop volley, a perfect second Serve on the T, two more chases and two deep signature forehands for Nadal to set up his showdown with Djokovic.

Just like everyone hoped.

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