PARIS — As the youngsters prefer to say nowadays, it’s on.
Far prior to many could have hoped, Novak Djokovic, the reigning French Open champion, will tackle Rafael Nadal, a 13-time champion at Roland Garros, in a quarterfinal match on Tuesday, the primary rematch of two of the leading men’s players since their epic semifinal last June.
It took a few of Nadal’s biggest tennis to survive a five-set, four-hour, 21-minute thriller Sunday evening against Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, however the match that so many crave is on the horizon.
“An enormous challenge and doubtless the largest one you could have here in Roland Garros,” Djokovic said, anticipating Nadal, after his fourth straight-sets win, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, a pummeling of Diego Schwartzman of Argentina. “I’m ready for it.”
Perhaps greater than Nadal, who survived one among the good scares of his storied French Open profession against Auger-Aliassime, the athletic and tireless Canadian with a booming serve and massive forehand.
“We’ve lots of history together,” Nadal said of Djokovic.
They’ve played one another 58 times, with Djokovic holding a 30-28 edge. It’s a classic clash of styles, Nadal blasting away and running wild on the clay, his favorite surface, and Djokovic bringing his exquisite timing, incomparable steel, and probably the most varied arsenal in the sport.
Much more, it’s a clash of two men whose personalities and trajectories, especially over the past 12 months, have pushed them into different realms of the game and public consciousness. One is a beloved citizen of the world, the opposite a polarizing, outspoken iconoclast so set in his beliefs that he was prepared to spend his last prime years on the sidelines reasonably than receive a vaccination against Covid-19.
There have been scattered boos as Djokovic was introduced on the Suzanne Lenglen Court on Sunday. Fans on the predominant court, Philippe Chatrier, chanted “Rafa, Rafa,” through the evening, urging on the Spanish champion who’s immortalized with a nine-foot statue outside the stadium.
Since Djokovic pulled off the nearly inconceivable by beating Nadal eventually 12 months’s French Open, Nadal has been jousting not directly together with his chief rival.
Djokovic mounted an all-out quest last 12 months to drag ahead of Nadal and Roger Federer in Grand Slam tournament titles and nearly did it, evening the Big Three at 20 wins each for six months and coming inside one match of surging ahead. Nadal, who largely ended his 2021 season after the French Open due to a chronic foot injury, said ending his profession with probably the most major championships mattered little to him.
Djokovic has refused to get vaccinated and questioned established science. Nadal got vaccinated way back, because, he said, he’s a tennis player and in no position to query what experts say is best for public health.
Djokovic has tried to spearhead an independent players organization, the Skilled Tennis Players Association, which he launched with a handful of other players in 2020. Nadal has refused to hitch the group and stays a member of the player council of the ATP, which has kept Djokovic’s organization on the skin of the game’s decision-making process.
On the court, they’ve captured one another’s most treasured possessions. After beating Nadal within the semifinals last 12 months, Djokovic erased a two-set deficit and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the ultimate to win his second French Open title.
In January, after being largely inactive for six months, unsure whether his foot would ever allow him to play again, Nadal won the Australian Open, which Djokovic had won nine times, greater than every other Grand Slam tournament.
Djokovic had won three consecutive Australian Opens and traveled to the country expecting to be allowed to defend his titles. He had tested positive for Covid-19 and recovered in mid-December. He thought that was speculated to gain him entry into the country despite its strict rules prohibiting unvaccinated visitors. He was detained on the border and deported after government officials deemed his stance against vaccinations a threat to public health.
Because the controversy unfolded, Nadal said in some ways he felt sorry for his rival, then kicked a little bit of dirt at Djokovic, who was locked in a Melbourne hotel with asylum seekers.
“He knew the conditions since lots of months ago, Nadal said, “so he makes his own decision.”
The shadow sparring has continued in Paris. Djokovic complained that the ATP had not involved his player organization in its discussions with Wimbledon after the tournament barred players from Russia and Belarus within the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The tour responded by announcing it might not award rankings points for the event, a move Nadal defended as crucial for safeguarding all players.
They even have different approaches to their careers. Djokovic said Sunday that being ranked No. 1 was “was at all times the best goal starting every season, particularly being within the era with Federer, Nadal.”
A couple of hours later, Nadal, currently ranked fifth, said he never paid any attention to his rating. Only a number. Not essential to him.
With their showdown now lower than 48 hours away, the conversation has turned as to if they may play in the course of the day or night, with each making his preference known to tournament organizers.
Nadal favors playing in the course of the day, when the weather is warmer, and the ball bounces high off the clay, right into his wheelhouse, and flies off his racket.
Djokovic excels at night, especially in Australia and on the U.S. Open, when conditions are colder and slower. His match against Nadal last 12 months turned when the sun went down, the temperature dropped and Nadal struggled to hit the ball through the court. Nadal said last week he didn’t consider clay-court tennis should occur at night. Too cold and too damp, which makes the clay follow balls, giving them the texture of heavy rocks on his racket.
Nadal won the initial scheduling battle Sunday, playing his match on the Philippe Chatrier Court. Organizers put Djokovic on the second court, Suzanne Lenglen, a smaller and more open venue with only one level of seats, making it prone to high winds.
Djokovic managed the challenge, making Schwartzman seem to be a sparring partner who forced Djokovic to run and stay on the court long enough — a bit greater than two hours — but not too long. After one spirited sprint to the online for a wonderfully feathered drop-shot return, he put his finger to his ear, asking the group to present him his due.
Nadal had no such concerns, though he struggled from the beginning of the chilly and breezy evening. Forty minutes into the match, he was down 5-1 and two breaks of serve, the rarest of events for somebody who got here into the match with a 108-3 record on this tournament.
Nadal often kicks clean the nub of tape in the midst of the baseline before heading to his chair for a changeover. As Auger-Aliassime, pumped his fist after clinching the primary set, 6-3, Nadal spent an additional few seconds working the road together with his foot, taking an additional moment seemingly to organize for the difficult places this match was going.
Nadal appeared to take control of the match in winning the second and third sets but, unlike Djokovic, Nadal has been anything but clinical at Roland Garros this 12 months, losing opportunities to shut out opponents just like the assassin he has been in years past.
It happened again on Sunday. Ultimately, on the crucial moments of the last two games in the ultimate set, it took a magical, on-the-run forehand flick for a down-the-line passing shot, an all-out sprint to catch as much as a drop volley, an ideal second serve on the T, two more all-out chases and two deep, signature forehands for Nadal to establish his showdown with Djokovic.
Just as everyone hoped.