Rafael Nadal insists he can't know for sure whether any match at Roland Garros might be his very last at a place he loves, a place he is loved. For now, if he keeps winning and keeps performing the way he did during his monumental quarterfinal victory over longtime rival Novak Djokovic that began in May and ended in June, Nadal will have more chances to play. With a mix of brilliant shot-making and his trademark resilience, Nadal got past the top-seeded defending French Open champion Djokovic 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) to move a step closer to his 14th championship at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament and what would be a 22nd major trophy overall, adding to records that he already owns.
"One of those magic nights for me," Nadal said. For anyone lucky enough to be there, too — provided they were able to stay awake — or even anyone watching from afar. The match began a little past 9 p.m. Tuesday and concluded more than four hours later, after 1 a.m. Wednesday. "TV decides," Djokovic said about the late start. "That's the world we are living in." The bracket said this was a quarterfinal, yes, but it felt like a final, from the quality of play to the quality of effort, from the anticipation that preceded it to the atmosphere that enveloped it. The only missing ingredient: There was no trophy handed to the winner. Nadal turns 36 on Friday, when he will face third-seeded Alexander Zverev in the semifinals.
When the subject of Nadal's future was brought up during his on-court interview, he smiled. "See you, by the way, in two days," Nadal said. "That's the only thing that I can say." It'll be difficult for any match the rest of the way to live up to this one. Nary a game, a point, a stroke or, indeed, a step came with a hint of insouciance. Both men gave their all. Nothing came easily. Nadal's 3-0 lead in the second set did him no good; Djokovic ended up taking it and would say later, "I thought, OK, I'm back in the game.'" But Djokovic's 3-0 lead in the fourth did him no good, even though he served for it at 5-3, even standing one point from forcing a fifth twice. Nadal saved those set points and broke there, then ran away with the closing tiebreaker, seizing a 6-1 edge and and never losing focus after his first three match points went awry. "I lost to a better player today," said Djokovic, who had won 22 sets in a row until the 49-minute opener against Nadal.
"Had my chances. Didn't use them. That's it." This showdown was their 59th, more than any other two men have played each other in the Open era. Nadal narrowed Djokovic's series lead to 30-29 while improving to 8-2 against his rival at Roland Garros. Nadal is now 110-3 for his career at the place. Two of those losses came against Djokovic, including in last year's semifinals. This time, Nadal made sure Djokovic remains behind him in the Slam count with 20. Nadal broke their three-way tie with Roger Federer at that number by capturing the Australian Open in January, when Djokovic was not able to play because he had not been vaccinated against COVID-19. Before Nadal advanced to his 15th semifinal in Paris, Zverev reached his second in a row by holding off 19-year-old rising star Carlos Alcaraz 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7).
"Not really getting easier from here," Zverev said after putting an end to Alcaraz's 14-match winning streak. "I told him at the net, You're going to win this tournament a lot of times, not just once,'" said Zverev, the runner-up at the U.S. Open in 2020 and the gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics last summer. "I hope I can win it before he starts ... beating us all." In women's action Tuesday, 18-year-old American Coco Gauff and 28-year-old Martina Trevisan of Italy reached their first Grand Slam semifinals. The 18th-seeded Gauff beat 2017 U.S. Open champion and 2018 French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens 7-5, 6-2, while the 59th-ranked Trevisan eliminated U.S. Open finalist Leylah Fernandez 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-3.
The nightcap was saved for two players who know each other so well. The tendencies and tactics. The mannerisms and moods. So it should come as no surprise they engaged in points so involved, so lengthy — 57 of at least nine strokes, with one that went 25 — that before some were concluded, folks in the stands would let out a gasp or an "Aaaah!" or "Awwww!", drawing rebuking hisses of "Shhhhh!" in response. Chair umpire Damien Dumusois might have set a record, were such records kept, for most times saying "S'il vous plait," to plead with spectators to settle down and allow play to continue. Nadal heard far more support in the form of yells of "Ra-fa!" or "Vamos!" or "Te quiero!" Only once Djokovic began to assert himself in the second set was his nickname "No-le!" heard with any frequency.
As time passed and the air became colder — below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 Celsius) — Nadal and Djokovic embodied the words in clay-colored capital letters in French and English along the facing of the lower level of the arena, attributed to Roland Garros, the World War I fighter pilot for whom the facility is named: "Victory belongs to the most tenacious." In the early going, and down the stretch, it was Nadal getting the better of the baseline back-and-forths, pushing and pulling Djokovic this way or that, up and back, until an opening for a clean winner presented itself.
Djokovic reacted to his miscues by rolling his eyes, shaking his head or putting his palms out as if to say, "What's going on?" Nadal showed zero signs of being slowed or bothered one bit by the chronic pain in his left foot that flares up every so often and kept him off the tour for the last half of 2021 and arose again before the French Open. Nor did Nadal betray a trace of fatigue from his five-set tussle against No. 9 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round on Sunday that lasted 4 hours, 21 minutes, nearly twice as long as Djokovic's matter-of-fact win that day. "I'm not surprised at all," Djokovic said. "It's not the first time that he is able, a few days after he's injured and barely walking, to come out 100% physically fit."