Rafael Nadal beats rival Novak Djokovic in 4-set quarterfinal showdown at French Open


Rafael Nadal beats rival Novak Djokovic in 4-set quarterfinal showdown at French Open

PARIS — Rafael Nadal insists he can’t know for sure if a Roland Garros game could be his very last in a place he loves, a place he loves.

If he keeps winning for now and performs like his monumental quarter-final win over longtime rival Novak Djokovic that started in May and ended in June, Nadal will have more chances to play.

With a mix of brilliant shot and his trademark resilience, Nadal overcame top-seeded defending French Open champion Djokovic 6-2 4-6 6-2 7-6 (4) to move a step closer to 14th. Clay Grand Slam Tournament Championship and 22nd Major Trophy overall, adding to the records he already holds.

“One of those magical nights for me,” said Nadal.

The game started just after 9 p.m. on Tuesday and ended more than four hours later, after 1 a.m. on Wednesday.

“Television decides,” said Djokovic about the late start. “This is the world we live in.”

The brace said this was a quarter-final, yes, but it felt like a final, from the quality of the game to the quality of the effort, from the anticipation that preceded it to the atmosphere that surrounded it.

The only missing ingredient: no trophy was presented to the winner.

Nadal will turn 36 on Friday when he meets third-placed Alexander Zverev in the semifinals. When the topic of Nadal’s future was raised during his on-pitch interview, he smiled.

“By the way, we’ll see each other in two days,” said Nadal. “That’s the only thing I can say.”

For the rest of the way, each match will be difficult to live up to.

Hardly a game, a point, a shot or even a step came with a hint of carelessness. Both men gave their all. Nothing came easy.

Nadal’s 3-0 lead in the second set didn’t do him any good; Djokovic finally took it and later said: “I was like, ‘OK, I’m back in the game.”’

But Djokovic’s 3-0 lead in the fourth round didn’t do him any good, despite serving 5-3 for it and even standing a point after twice forcing a fifth. Nadal saved those set points and broke there, then ran away with the final tiebreaker, claiming a 6-1 lead and never losing focus after his first three match points went wrong.

“I lost to a better player today,” said Djokovic, who had won 22 straight sets up until the 49-minute opener against Nadal. “Had my chances. Haven’t used them. That’s it.”

That showdown was her 59th, more than any other two men have played against each other in the Open era. Nadal cut Djokovic’s streak lead to 30-29 while improving to 8-2 against his rival at Roland Garros.

Nadal is now 110-3 for his career on the court. Two of those defeats came against Djokovic, including in last year’s semifinals. This time Nadal made sure Djokovic stayed behind him on 20 in the Slam count. Nadal broke his three-point tie with Roger Federer at that number by conquering the Australian Open in January when Djokovic was unable to play because he wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19.

It should come as no surprise that they played points so complicated for so long — 57 out of at least nine shots, one going 25 — that people in the stands let out a gasp or an “Aaaah” before some were finished!” or “Awwww!” and a reproachful “Shhhh!” in response.

Chair umpire Damien Dumusois might have set a record if such records had been kept, for most of the time he would say “S’il vous plait” to ask spectators to calm down and play on.

Nadal received far more support in the form of “Ra-fa!” or “Vamos!” or “Te quiero!” calls. It wasn’t until Djokovic began to assert himself in the second set that his nickname ‘No-le! ” to be heard with any frequency.

As time passed and the air grew colder – below 60 degrees Fahrenheit – Nadal and Djokovic embodied the words in clay-colored capital letters in French and English along the lining of the arena’s lower level attributed to Roland Garros, the world fighter pilot of World War I , after which the facility is named: “Victory belongs to the most stubborn.”

At the start and down the stretch it was Nadal who took down the baseline back and forth, pushing and pulling Djokovic back and forth, up and down, until an opening for a clean winner presented itself. Djokovic reacted to his mistakes by rolling his eyes, shaking his head or holding out his palms as if to say, “What’s up?”

Nadal showed no signs of being slowed down or bothered a bit by the chronic pain in his left foot, which kept flaring up and keeping him off the Tour in the latter part of 2021 and reoccurring ahead of the French Open.

Nadal also showed no sign of fatigue from his five-set fight against 9th-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round on Sunday, which lasted 4 hours and 21 minutes, almost double Djokovic’s sober win on the day.

“I’m not surprised at all,” said Djokovic. “It’s not the first time he’s been able to be 100% physically fit a few days after being injured and barely walking.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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