PARIS — At the end of the third set alone, Rafael Nadal played 112 career matches at Roland Garros, as the sun and the temperature dropped and the chants of “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” filled the evening air, the man known as the King of Clay showed precisely what it meant to him.
With each sprint-slide-stretch to reach a seemingly inaccessible shot from the yellow racket of his opponent, Félix Auger-Aliassime; with every winner right around the corner; with each well-hit volley, Nadal would jump or throw an uppercut or shout “Vamos!” — and, often, all of the above.
Nadal passed his first serious test of this French Open by beating the No. 9 seed Auger-Aliassime 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 over almost 4 and a half hours entertaining and consistent tennis in the fourth round on Sunday at Court Philippe Chatrier.
“To be honest, every game I play here, I don’t know if it will be my last game here at Roland Garros. … That’s my situation now,” said Nadal, who turns 36 on Friday. “That’s why I just try to enjoy it as much as possible.”
And the reward for getting through this one? A tantalizing match against rival Novak Djokovic in Tuesday’s quarter-finals.
Nadal improved to 3-0 in five-set matches in the clay-court tournament which he dominated like no one has ever dominated any Grand Slam event. Overall, he’s 109-3 here, and two of those losses have come to Djokovic, including in last year’s semi-finals when they last met.
The importance of rivalry: Tuesday’s meeting will be their 59th, more than two other men have faced each other in the sport’s professional era. Djokovic leads 30-28, although Nadal has a 7-2 advantage at Roland Garros.
“We have a lot of history together,” said Nadal, who attended the Champions League final won by his favorite club Real Madrid on Saturday night and didn’t return to his room until after midnight.
Looking at the bigger picture, Nadal’s record 13 championships at Roland Garros, formerly ranked No. 1, is part of his harvest of 21 Grand Slam trophies, a record for men. Djokovic, currently ranked No. 1, two-time French Open title winner, is only one behind Nadal in the total Slam tally, tied with Roger Federer at 20.
Djokovic beat 15th seed Diego Schwartzman 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 earlier on Sunday and won all 12 sets he contested in the tournament.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Djokovic said of playing against Nadal, “and probably the biggest you can have here at Roland Garros. I’m ready for that.”
The other quarter-final in their men’s half is between No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev and No. 6 Carlos Alcaraz or No. 21 Karen Khachanov.
Nadal and Auger-Aliassime produced high-intensity tennis as the temperature dipped below 60 degrees Fahrenheit and a 10 mph wind made it feel even chillier as 9 p.m. approached during the denouement.
Wrapped in souvenir orange towels and Roland-Garros blankets of different hues, spectators enjoyed every last drop of drama, chanting the first names of the two players and rising to applaud the many spectacular exchanges. One member of the public, however, did not stay for the fifth set: Toni Nadal, who is Rafael’s uncle and coached him to 16 of his Grand Slam titles, but is now assisting coach Auger-Aliassime . Uncle Toni, as many call him, stayed away from the two players’ guest boxes – how could he pick a side? – and instead sat in the front row just behind one of the end lines, applauding the two male winners and avoiding showing any pleasure derived from anyone’s mistakes, until he left at the start of the deciding set.
He missed quite a few finishes.
Nadal used increasingly aggressive tactics, advancing when possible and pounced on any short ball from his opponent. Coming back from leading 4-3, Nadal broke his left wrist for a forehand winner that left him screaming and punching the air – and left semi-finalist Auger-Aliassime at the US Open 2021 but 0-2 for his career at the French Open until this year, head down.
It gave Nadal two break points, and he converted the second with a backhand winner. Soon it was all over.
“He raised his level when he needed to,” Auger-Aliassime said.
Nadal hadn’t dropped a set in the tournament before facing Auger-Aliassime, a 21-year-old Canadian equipped with a big serve and forehand.
“I suffered,” Nadal said.
Since starting the season with a 20-0 record, including a title at the Australian Open in January when Djokovic was not allowed to participate because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19, Nadal had to deal with a rib injury and a recurrence of the chronic pain in his left foot that has plagued him for years. He repeated several times in Paris that he did not know how well he would be able to play.
If he was in pain on Sunday, it was impossible to know – and, more precisely, impossible to say. His movement was unimpeded, his relentlessness intact.
He will have time to recover and prepare to face Djokovic, who spent around half of his time on court on Sunday.
“These are special matches,” Nadal said. “I don’t know if I will have what it takes to beat someone like Novak, but I will try.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.