As the kids like to say these days, it’s on.
Far sooner than many have hoped, Novak Djokovic, the reigning French Open champion, will take on Rafael Nadal, a 13-time champion at Roland Garros, in a quarterfinal match on Tuesday, the first of two rematch of two leading players since. Their epic semifinal last June.
It took some of Nadal’s greatest tennis to survive a five-set, four-hour, 21-minute thriller Sunday evening against Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, but the match that many crave is on the horizon.
“A huge challenge and probably the biggest one that you can have here in Roland Garros,” said Djokovic, anticipating Nadal, after winning his fourth straight-sets, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, a pummeling of Diego Schwartzman. of Argentina. “I’m ready for it.”
Probably more 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 played each other 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 the most varied arsenal in the game.
Even more, it is a clash of two men whose personalities and trajectories, especially over the past year, have pushed them into different realms of the sport and public consciousness. One is a beloved citizen of the world, the other is a polarizing, outspoken iconoclast so set in his beliefs that he was prepared to spend his last prime years on the sidelines rather than receiving a vaccination against Covid-19.
There were various boos as Djokovic was introduced on the Suzanne Lenglen Court on Sunday. Fans at the main court, Philippe Chatrier, chanted “Rafa, Rafa,” through the evening, urging the Spanish champion who is immortalized with a nine-foot statue outside the stadium.
Since Djokovic pulled off the quite impossible by beating Nadal at last year’s French Open, Nadal has been jousting indirectly with his chief rival.
Djokovic mounted an all-out quest to pull off last year’s Nadal and Roger Federer in the Grand Slam tournament titles and nearly did it, surging ahead of the Big Three at 20 wins each for six months and coming within a match. Nadal, who largely ended his 2021 season after the French Open because of a chronic foot injury, said his career with the most major championships mattered little to him.
Djokovic has received vaccinated and questioned established science. Nadal got vaccinated long ago, because, he said, he is a tennis player and has no position to question what experts say is best for public health.
Djokovic has tried to spearhead an independent players organization, the Professional Tennis Players Association, which he launched with a handful of other players in 2020. Nadal has joined the group and is currently a member of the player council of the ATP, which has kept Djokovic’s organization on the outside of the sport’s decision-making process.
On the court, they have captured each other’s most treasured possessions. After beating Nadal in the semifinals last year, Djokovic erased a two-set deficit and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas to win 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 Grand Slam tournament.
Djokovic has won three consecutive Australian Opens and traveled to the country expecting to be able to defend his titles. He had tested positive for Covid-19 and recovered in mid-December. He thought it was supposed to gain him entry into 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 he felt sorry for his rival, then kicked a bit of a dirt at Djokovic, who was locked up in a Melbourne hotel with asylum seekers.
“He knew the conditions since a lot of months ago, Nadal said,” so he makes his own decision. “
The shadow sparring has continued in Paris. Djokovic complained that the ATP was not involved in its discussions with its player organization after the tournament barred players from Russia and Belarus into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Announcing this tour would not award award points for the event, a move Nadal defended as necessary for protecting all players.
They even have different approaches to their careers. Djokovic said Sunday that being ranked No. 1 was “was always the highest goal every season, especially being in the era with Federer, Nadal.”
A few hours later, Nadal, currently ranked fifth, said he never paid any attention to his ranking. Just a number. Not important to him.
With their showdown less than 48 hours away now, the conversation has turned to whether they will be playing during the day or night, with each making his preference known to tournament organizers.
Nadal favors playing during the day, when the weather is warmer, and the ball bounces off the clay, right into his wheelhouse, and flies off his racket.
Djokovic excels at night, especially in Australia and the US Open, when conditions are colder and slower. His match against Nadal turned last year 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 believe clay-court tennis should happen at night. Too cold and too damp, which makes the clay stick to the balls, giving them the feel of heavy rocks on their racket.
Nadal won the preliminary scheduling battle Sunday, playing his match on the Philippe Chatrier Court. Organizers put Djokovic on the second court, Suzanne Lenglen, with a smaller and more open venue with just one level seats, making it susceptible to high winds.
Djokovic managed the challenge, making Schwartzman seem like a sparring partner who forced Djokovic to run and stay on the court long enough – a little more than two hours – but not too long. After a spirited sprint to the net for a perfectly feathered drop-shot return, he put his finger to his ear, asking the crowd to give him his due.
Nadal had no such concerns, though he struggled from the chilly and breezy evenings. Forty minutes into the match, he was down 5-1 and serving two breaks, the rarest of events for someone who came into the match with a 108-3 record in this tournament.
Nadal often kicks the nub of the tape in the middle of the baseline before heading to his chair for a changeover. As Auger-Aliassime pumped his first set after clinching the fist, 6-3, Nadal spent an extra few seconds working his line with the line, taking an extra moment to seemingly prepare for the challenging places this match was going.
Nadal appeared to take control of the match in the second and third sets but unlike Djokovic, Nadal has been anything but clinical at Roland Garros this year, losing opportunities to close opponents like the assassin he has been in years past.
It happened again on Sunday. In the end, at the crucial moments of the last two games in the final set, it took a magical, on-the-run forehand flick for a down-the-line passing shot to catch up to an all-out sprint. Drop volley, a perfect second serve on the T, two more all-out chases and two deep, signature forehands for Nadal to set up his showdown with Djokovic.
Just as everyone was hoping.