When the two biggest rivals in men’s tennis came together again at the French Open, many factors spoke in Novak Djokovic’s favor. While both he and Rafael Nadal had entered the clay-court season full of uncertainty, only Djokovic had made significant steps forward since then. Nadal, on the other hand, was still looking for his best form after breaking his rib. His preparation was complicated by the flare-up of his chronic foot injury. His form in Paris has been below average so far.
But this is Rafael Nadal. At Roland Garros. He is the man who has won 110 times in his homeland with just three losses, who over the course of his 17 years there has shown that form and other frivolous little things matter little in the face of total, unprecedented dominance. In a match that started in May and ended in June, Nadal Djokovic blew away in the early stages, then absorbed several powerful fights and immense pressure before going 6-2 4-6 6-2 7-6 (4th ) after four hours and 11 minutes at 1:15 a.m. local time.
“It was a very tough match,” said Nadal. “Novak is without a doubt one of the best players in history. Always playing against him is a great challenge. The whole story we have together was different today.”
In the 59th clash of the historic rivalry that never ends, Nadal draws 29:30 in a head-to-head against Djokovic. He will meet Alexander Zverev in the semifinals, who had the best Grand Slam match of his career as he passed an often unpredictable Carlos Alcaraz and erased the surrounding hype with a 6-4, 6-4, 4-6 win , 7-6(7).
Nadal arrived in his seat and set the tone from the start, forcing his way down the baseline and trying to unload the historic barometer of his confidence on his forehand down the line. During the numerous tight early games, Nadal broke Djokovic’s serve in the opening game after several deuces. As a great Nadal marched through the opening set, Djokovic struggled. His backhand sprayed unusual unforced errors, returns landed short, he struggled to keep up and Nadal went 6-2, 3-0 on a double break.
It was only a matter of time before Djokovic caught on and at that very moment he did. He lowered Nadal’s serve on his return, slowly moving across the baseline as it was he who dictated the exchange, crushing the ball and charging Nadal’s forehand. He won six of the next seven games to level the match, but they were earned through a series of endless, brutal deuce games over an 88-minute set.
Djokovic’s level rose a lot, but it didn’t last. Nadal opened the third set by constantly trying to reach the net, dominating an underperforming Djokovic throughout the set. But the momentum only continued. Djokovic dialed back in on his return of serve and when he broke serve in Nadal’s hold in game four he had returned to the top of the baseline, putting constant pressure on Nadal and offering himself a chance to end the set. He led 5-2 but Nadal attacked, saving two set points at 5-3 and then nailing an inside-out forehand winner for the break.
As the tiebreak began in the fourth set, Nadal soared. He clocked his down-the-line forehand better than he had since the opening set. He pinned three straight forehand winners to start the tie-break and with each point the task in front of Djokovic grew grimmer. The No. 1 went back three match points from 1-6, but his time at Nadal’s house that year ended with a thunderous backhand that won the Spaniard’s racquet down the line.
“To win against Novak there is only one way: to do your best from the first point to the last. Tonight was one of those nights for me. An unexpected level but I’m super happy,” said Nadal.
After that, Djokovic conceded that he was second best that day: “I know I could have played better,” he said. “I’m proud to have fought and persevered to the last shot. Like I said, I lost to a better player today. Had my chances. Haven’t used them. That’s it. Over four hours of fighting and I have to accept this defeat.”
Throughout the week, Nadal has hinted that these French Opens could be his last given his chronic foot injury and he navigates this French Open with added emotion: “I just enjoy every day that I have the chance to be here, and without thinking much about what may happen in the future,” he said. “Of course I will keep fighting to find a solution [the foot], but at the moment we don’t have that. So just giving me the chance to play another semi-final here at Roland Garros is a lot of energy for me.”