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PARIS — For a man who did not want to play Novak Djokovic at night, Rafael Nadal certainly made the best of the situation.
Whatever the hour and whatever the surface, Nadal remains one of the supreme fighters and problem solvers in sports. Though Nadal did not have the clout as a 13-time French Open champion to influence the scheduling, he did have the skill and the will to hold off the only man who has beaten him twice at Roland Garros.
Nadal, who will turn 36 on Friday, was irresistible at the start of his latest marathon with Djokovic and sometimes shaky in the middle, but he found a way well after midnight to save two set points down the stretch and cross the finish line in first with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory.
“Novak is one of the best players of the history without a doubt,” Nadal said. “Playing him is always an amazing challenge, all the history we have together. Today was another one. To win against Novak there is only one way to play, at your best and first point to the last, and tonight was one of those magic nights for me.”
This four-hour-and-12-minute triumph did not secure Nadal the trophy. It was only a quarterfinal on a chilly Tuesday evening when scarves were definitely in order on the Philippe Chatrier Court (some fans chose to wrap their entire bodies in Spanish or Serbian flags).
But the victory — completed at 1:15 a.m. local time Wednesday — did provide Nadal with the sort of buzz and satisfaction that validates his decision to keep pushing the limits at this late stage of his career and also protected his lead in the race to finish with the most men’s Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal took hold of the record by winning his 21st major title at the Australian Open in January, breaking his tie with his longtime rivals Djokovic and Roger Federer, who both have won 20.
Not that Nadal is obsessing over the race.
“There is always a conversation about the player who will finish with more Slams or who is the best of the history, but from my perspective it doesn’t matter that much,” he said. “We achieved our dreams.”
That is certainly true for Nadal at Roland Garros, where he has succeeded far beyond even his own imaginings.
There was a time, early in his long period of dominance in Paris, when he was no crowd favorite at Roland Garros. The fans traditionally cheer for the underdog and long cheered for Federer most loudly of all when it came to the Big Three players who have ruled the men’s game for most of the last 20 years.
But the mood has shifted in recent seasons. There is now a statue of Nadal near the entrance of the stadium complex, and throughout Tuesday evening there were chants of “Rafa” even as Djokovic prepared to serve at critical phases.
“I think probably they know that I am not going to be here a lot more times,” Nadal said.
It was Djokovic who did not get the chance to play in this year’s Australian Open. He was deported on the eve of the competition after a standoff with the Australian government over his being unvaccinated against Covid-19. But he arrived in Paris and at Tuesday’s match in more convincing form than Nadal, who is without a doubt the greatest men’s clay-court player in history but was very short on matches on the surface this year.
“Yes, I was surprised by my level tonight,” Nadal said. “But in a way it makes it simpler when you know that you either need your A game or you’re going home.”
Nadal injured his ribs at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March, losing the final to the American Taylor Fritz while playing with a stress fracture. He missed most of the early clay-court season and only returned for the Madrid Open in mid-May, when he was upset by his 19-year-old Spaniard compatriot, Carlos Alcaraz, in the quarterfinals.
Then came the Italian Open, his only other clay-court event before Roland Garros, where Nadal was beaten in three sets by Denis Shapovalov of Canada in a round-of-16 night match in Rome in which he hobbled to the finish, grimacing in pain as his chronic left foot condition resurfaced. He was downbeat after that defeat but did not rule out playing in the French Open and arrived in Paris seeded fifth and, unlike in Rome, with his longtime physician, Angel Ruiz-Cotorro.
“Having the doctor here you can do things that help,” said Nadal, declining to go into detail on his treatment while continuing to suggest that this could be his final appearance at Roland Garros. “I am putting everything that I have to try to play this tournament with the best conditions possible, no? I don’t know what can happen after, honestly, but here I think I am going to be fine.”
As so often, Nadal has proved able to play and prevail through the pain. He fought to a five-set victory in the fourth round over the 21-year-old Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, then took on the top-seeded Djokovic for the 59th time on tour and the 10th time at Roland Garros.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Djokovic said after the match. “It’s not the first time that he, you know, is able to a few days after he’s injured and barely walking to come out 100 percent physically fit. You know, he’s done it many times in his career, so I’m not surprised.”
Last year, in another stirring night match, Djokovic defeated Nadal in four sets on his way to winning the title. Nadal faded in the final set due to Djokovic’s staying power but also to the foot condition — Müller-Weiss syndrome — that would keep him from playing for most of what remained of the 2021 season.
But in this French Open rematch, Nadal was strong at the start and at the finish in a grueling duel with an average rally length well over five strokes. Nadal finished with 57 winners to 43 unforced errors and did a much better job than Djokovic of protecting his second serve: winning 60 percent of the points on it while Djokovic won just 42 percent on his.
Still, Djokovic served for the fourth set at 5-4 and was twice only one point away from forcing decisive fifth. But on the first set point, Djokovic lost an extended rally by hitting a backhand into the net. On the second, he decided to be more aggressive but his approach shot was more hopeful than good and Nadal ran to his right and smacked a backhand passing shot winner that Djokovic was never close to reaching.
It was soon 5-5 in the fourth set and Nadal took quick control of the ensuing tiebreaker, just as he had taken quick command of the match. He jumped out to a 6-1 lead in the tiebreaker and then held on and closed out the victory on his fourth match point with another backhand winner, turning to his team and raising both his arms.
“Congratulations to Nadal, he was the best player in the important moments,” Djokovic said. “I managed to win the second set and thought I was back in the game, but then he had another two or three fantastic games again at the beginning of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level.”
Djokovic still leads their overall series 30-29 — a statistic that reflects the transcendence of their rivalry — but Nadal has now extended his lead over Djokovic in French Open matches to 8-2 and will face Alexander Zverev, a German seeded third, on Friday for a place in the men’s singles final.
Nadal is the only man left in the tournament who has won the French Open, and though Tuesday night’s performance might have come as a surprise to Nadal and those who saw him hobbling in Rome, it would surely come as no surprise to anyone if Nadal took the confidence and momentum that goes with defeating Djokovic and rode it to a 14th title at Roland Garros.