PARIS — As children like to say these days, let’s go.
Much sooner than many had hoped, reigning French Open champion Novak Djokovic will face 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals on Tuesday, the first rematch for two of the best men’s players since. their epic semi-final last June.
It took some of Nadal’s greatest tennis players to survive a five-set, four-hour, 21-minute thriller on Sunday night against Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, but the match so many dream of is on the horizon.
“A huge challenge and probably the biggest you can have here at Roland Garros,” Djokovic said, anticipating Nadal, after his fourth win in straight sets, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, a Diego strike. Schwartzmann. from Argentina. “I’m ready for this.”
Perhaps more so than Nadal, who survived one of the great scares of his storied French Open career 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 faced each other 58 times, with Djokovic holding a 30-28 advantage. It’s a classic clash of styles, with Nadal exploding and going wild on clay, his favorite surface, and Djokovic bringing his exquisite timing, unrivaled steel and the most varied arsenal in the game.
More so, it’s a clash between two men whose personalities and trajectories, especially over the past year, have pushed them into different areas of sport and public consciousness. One is a beloved global citizen, the other a polarizing and outspoken iconoclast, so entrenched in his beliefs that he was willing to spend his last prime time years rather than get a Covid-19 shot. .
There were scattered boos when Djokovic was introduced on the Suzanne Lenglen court on Sunday. Fans on the main court, Philippe Chatrier, chanted “Rafa, Rafa”, throughout the evening, urging the Spanish champion who is immortalized with a nine-foot statue outside the stadium.
Since Djokovic achieved the near-impossible by beating Nadal at Roland-Garros last year, Nadal has indirectly played with his main rival.
Djokovic mounted an all-out quest last year to edge out Nadal and Roger Federer in Grand Slam tournament titles and nearly did it, tonight the Big Three to 20 wins apiece for six months and less than a game away from leap forward. Nadal, who largely ended his 2021 season after Roland-Garros due to a chronic foot injury, said finishing his career with the top championships didn’t matter to him.
Djokovic refused to get vaccinated and questioned established science. Nadal got vaccinated a long time ago because, he said, he is a tennis player and in no position to question what experts say is best for public health.
Djokovic has attempted to lead an organization of independent players, the Association of Professional Tennis Players, which he started with a handful of other players in 2020. Nadal declined to join the group and remains a member of the players’ council of the ATP, which kept Djokovic’s organization out of the sport’s decision-making process.
On the pitch, they grabbed each other’s most valuable possessions. After beating Nadal in the semi-finals last year, Djokovic erased a two-set deficit and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final to claim his second French Open title.
In January, after being largely inactive for six months, 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 tournament in the world. Grand Slam.
Djokovic had won three consecutive Australian Opens and traveled to the country hoping to be allowed to defend his titles. He had tested positive for Covid-19 and recovered in mid-December. He believed this was supposed to allow him to enter the country despite its strict rules prohibiting unvaccinated visitors. He was detained at the border and deported after government officials deemed his stance against vaccinations a threat to public health.
As the controversy unfolded, Nadal said in some ways that he felt sorry for his rival, then kicked Djokovic, who was locked in a Melbourne hotel with claimants. asylum.
“He knew the conditions for several months,” Nadal said, “so he makes his own decision.”
The shadow fight continued in Paris. Djokovic has complained that the ATP failed to involve his player organization in discussions with Wimbledon after the tournament banned players from Russia and Belarus following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine . The tour responded by announcing that they would not award ranking points for the event, a decision Nadal defended as necessary to protect all players.
They even have different approaches to their careers. Djokovic said on Sunday that being ranked No. 1 was “always the highest goal at the start of every season, especially at the time with Federer, Nadal”.
Hours later, Nadal, currently ranked fifth, said he never paid attention to his ranking. Just a number. Not important to him.
With their showdown now less than 48 hours away, the conversation turned to whether they will play day or night, with each making their preference known to tournament organizers.
Nadal prefers to play during the day, when the weather is warmer, and the ball is bouncing high on clay, straight into his wheelhouse, and flying off his racquet.
Djokovic excels at night, especially in Australia and the US Open, when conditions are colder and slower. His game against Nadal last year turned when the sun went down, the temperature dropped and Nadal struggled to hit the ball across the pitch. Nadal said last week that he doesn’t believe clay tennis should take place at night. Too cold and too wet causing the clay to stick to the balls giving them the feel of heavy rocks on his racquet.
Nadal won the initial lineup battle on Sunday, playing his match on the Philippe Chatrier court. Organizers placed Djokovic on the second court, Suzanne Lenglen, a smaller, more open venue with only one level of seating, making it susceptible to high winds.
Djokovic passed the challenge, making Schwartzman a sparring partner who forced Djokovic to run and stay on the court long enough – just over two hours – but not too long. After a fiery sprint to the net for a perfectly feathered dropshot return, he put his finger to his ear, asking the crowd to give him their due.
Nadal had no such worries, although he struggled from the start of the cool and windy evening. Forty minutes into the match, he was down 5-1 and two breaks of serve, the rarest of events for someone who entered the game with a 108-3 record in this tournament.
Nadal often delivers a clean kick to the tape knot in the middle of the baseline before heading to his chair for a change. As Auger-Aliassime pumped his fist after winning the first set, 6-3, Nadal spent a few extra seconds working the line with his foot, apparently taking an extra moment to prepare for the tough spots this match was going to. .
Nadal appeared to take control of the match winning the second and third sets but, unlike Djokovic, Nadal has been anything but clinical at Roland Garros this year, wasting chances to eliminate opponents like the assassin he has been. these last years.
It happened again on Sunday. In the end, at crucial moments in the final two games of the final set, it took a magic, quick forehand to pass down the line, a full sprint to catch a drop volley, a perfect second serve on the T, two more total chases and two deep and iconic forehands for Nadal to set up his clash with Djokovic.
As everyone expected.