As the two greatest rivals in men’s tennis convened at the French Open once more, plenty of factors pointed in favour of Novak Djokovic. While both he and Rafael Nadal had arrived in the clay court season full of uncertainty, only Djokovic had taken notable steps forward since. Nadal, meanwhile, still searched for his best form after his fractured rib. His preparation was complicated with a flareup of his chronic foot injury. His form in Paris was, so far, subpar.
But this is Rafael Nadal. At Roland Garros. He is the man who has won 110 times in his home with just three losses, who has shown over the course of his 17 years there that form and other frivolous trivia have little relevance in the face of total, unprecedented dominance. In a match that began in May and ended in June, Nadal blew Djokovic away in the opening stages, then absorbed multiple strong fightbacks and immense pressure before rising to win 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4) after four hours and 11 minutes at 1:15am local time.
“It was a very tough match,” said Nadal. “Novak is one of the best players in history without a doubt. Always to play against him is an amazing challenge. All the history that we have together, today was another one.”
In the 59th meeting of the historic rivalry that never ends, Nadal moves to 29-30 against Djokovic in their head-to-head. He will face Alexander Zverev in the semi-final, who played the best grand slam match of his career as he edged past an often erratic Carlos Alcaraz, snuffing out the surrounding hype as he won 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(7).
Nadal arrived on his court and set the tone from the beginning, forcing his way inside the baseline and looking to unload on his forehand down the line, the historic barometer of his confidence. During the numerous tight early games, Nadal broke Djokovic’s serve in the opening game after several deuces. As a sublime Nadal marched through the opening set, Djokovic struggled. His backhand sprayed unusual unforced errors, returns landed short, he struggled to keep up and Nadal established a 6-2, 3-0 lead with a double break.
It was only a matter of time before Djokovic asserted himself, and it was at this moment that he did. He scythed Nadal’s serve down with his return and slowly moved on top of the baseline as it was he who dictated the exchanges, crushing the ball and rushing the Nadal forehand. He won six of the next seven games to level the match, but they were earned through a series of interminable, brutal deuce games over an 88-minute set.
Djokovic’s level sharply rose, but it did not last. Nadal opened the third set by continually looking to reach the net and he dominated a substandard Djokovic over the course of the set. But the momentum only continued to swing. Djokovic dialled back in on his return of serve and as he broke serve in Nadal’s opening service game in the fourth, he had again returned to the top of the baseline, putting constant pressure on Nadal and presenting himself a chance to serve out the set. He led 5-2, but Nadal charged, saving two set points at 5-3 then nailing an inside out forehand winner to break.
As the fourth-set tiebreak began, Nadal soared. He was timing his down-the-line forehand better than at any point since the opening set. He nailed three forehand winners in a row to begin the tiebreak and with every point the task before Djokovic became increasingly bleak. The No 1 wrestled back three match points from 1-6, but his time in Nadal’s home this year ended with a thunderous backhand down-the-line winner off the Spaniard’s racket.
“To win against Novak, there is only one way: to play at your best from the first point to the last. Today it was one of those nights for me. An unexpected level but I am super happy,” said Nadal.
Afterwards, Djokovic conceded that he was second best on the day: “I know I could have played better,” he said. “I’m proud of fighting and staying till the last shot. As I said, you know, I lost to a better player today. Had my chances. Didn’t use them. That’s it. Over four hours’ battle, and I have to accept this defeat.”
Throughout the week, Nadal has suggested that this French Open could well be his last in light of his chronic foot injury, and he is navigating this French Open with extra emotion: “I am just enjoying every day that I have the chance to be here, and without thinking much about what can happen on the future,” he said. “Of course I’m going to keep fighting to find a solution for [the foot], but for the moment, we haven’t. So just give myself a chance to play another semi-finals here at Roland Garros is a lot of energy for me.”