PARIS — It took every shot in Rafael Nadal’s repertoire, total conviction and considerable “suffering,” as the Spaniard put it, to reach the French Open quarterfinals.
Nadal, who turns 36 on Friday, sounded bleak after his 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory on Court Philippe-Chatrier, where he has won 13 of his men’s record 21 Grand Slam titles.
“I [am] going to fight for it,” he said. “Two weeks and a half ago … I don’t know if I would be able to be here. So just enjoying the fact that I am here for one more year. And, being honest, every match that I play here, I don’t know if [it’s] going to be my last match here in Roland Garros in my tennis career, no? That’s my situation now.”
Nadal didn’t cite the rib he cracked during a tournament in March and made only passing reference to “a tough process” with his foot, alluding to chronic pain in his surgically repaired left one. At this stage in his hard-slugging career, the injuries and ailments are baggage he carries that he didn’t have in 2005, when he won his first French Open title just days after his 19th birthday.
Djokovic, who secured his quarterfinal berth earlier Sunday in half the time by breezing past Diego Schwartzman, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, is on a mission to equal Nadal’s tally of majors here at Roland Garros, where he is the defending champion, and surpass it at Wimbledon next month. He has yet to concede a set in the first four rounds.
Asked after his victory about the prospect of facing Nadal for a spot in the semifinals, Djokovic called it “a huge challenge and probably the biggest one that you can have here in Roland Garros.”
“I’m glad that I didn’t spend too much time on the court myself up to quarterfinals,” Djokovic said, “knowing that ... playing [Nadal] in Roland Garros is always a physical battle.”
The Djokovic-Nadal clash is the match so many tennis fans have looked forward to at this year’s French Open — albeit not so early in the tournament — because of its many layers of significance.
The victor’s next challenge could prove equally daunting: a potential semifinal against Carlos Alcaraz, the Spanish teen who beat Nadal and Djokovic in succession to win the recent Madrid Open on clay. The sixth-seeded Alcaraz routed Karen Khachanov, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4, on Sunday to reach the quarterfinals, in which he will face third-seeded Alexander Zverev.
Djokovic holds a 30-28 career edge on Nadal, but Nadal leads 19-8 on clay. Djokovic won their most recent meeting on the tricky surface, ousting Nadal in the 2021 French Open semifinals en route to claiming the title for a second time.
They haven’t competed at the same Grand Slam since. Nadal missed the 2021 U.S. Open to undergo foot surgery. Djokovic missed the 2022 Australian Open after being deported following a failed legal challenge over his coronavirus vaccination status.
Sunday’s matches took place on a cool, overcast afternoon as the city slowly woke after Saturday night’s UEFA Champions League final at Stade de France. Nadal, a lifelong Real Madrid fan, was among the luminaries on hand — a rare diversion on the night before a Grand Slam match — and he exited, he said, before the postmatch revelry because it was time for bed.
Unlike Djokovic, who was met by a mixture of boos and cheers when he strode out for his match, Nadal was greeted like a returning champion by the fans who packed the 15,000-seat stadium court.
The 6-foot-4 Auger-Aliassime, 21, was superior at the outset, breaking Nadal’s serve early and committing far fewer errors to claim the opening set. After leveling at one set apiece, Nadal rounded into form in the third set, pummeling Auger-Aliassime with forehand blasts again and again.
But the ninth-seeded Auger-Aliassime, who was seeking his fourth consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance, weathered the Spaniard’s best. He hung with the hard-hitting Nadal on extended baseline rallies. He produced huge serves time and again to fend off 16 of the 22 break points he faced. And he kept his composure as the momentum shifted back and forth.
The match unfolded with an unusual psychological subtext. Since childhood, Nadal had been coached by his uncle Toni, who molded his left-handed game and indomitable fighting spirit. Nadal won 16 majors under his tutelage, but his uncle stepped away from his coaching duties in 2017.
In April 2021, Toni Nadal joined Auger-Aliassime’s coaching staff with an understanding that he would not coach him against his nephew. That circumstance arrived for the first time Sunday — on Nadal’s favorite stage, with his opportunity to claim a 22nd Grand Slam title and a record-extending 14th French Open in the balance.
Toni Nadal’s solution — he explained Friday, when his nephew and young charge advanced to their fourth-round collision — was to sit in neither player’s box. Instead, he looked on from a “neutral” seat in the front row, taking neither side yet impossible to miss — at least until the contest headed into the fifth set. At that point, he later explained to a French broadcaster, he could take no more and had to leave to watch the conclusion on television.
It was a classic encounter marked by terrific shot-making, smart strategy and sportsmanship. As the proceedings neared the four-hour mark, Auger-Aliassime was shrewd and remorseless in yanking Nadal from side to side and from front to back with a medley of forehand blasts, drop shots and lobs.
Nadal’s fitness has been in question from the tournament’s outset, but he has sidestepped direct questions about it. He gave no hint of any limitations deep into the fifth set, ripping a forehand winner down the line, in a full slide, to set up what proved to be the key break point.
With the victory, Nadal improved his record at Roland Garros to 109-3.
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