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Rafael Nadal knocks out Novak Djokovic in heavyweight French Open quarterfinal

Rafael Nadal celebrates his four-set win over Novak Djokovic in the French Open quarterfinals. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse)

PARIS — A Grand Slam title wasn’t at stake, but the tension and standard of play couldn’t have been higher as top-ranked Novak Djokovic and 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal launched into the 59th meeting of their career-defining rivalry Tuesday night.

Before a capacity crowd on Court Philippe-Chatrier, Nadal prevailed, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4), keeping alive the chance to add to his record number of French Open trophies and extend his men’s record total of 21 Grand Slam championships. While doing so, he denied Djokovic any shot at matching his Grand Slam record — at least at this tournament.

After clinching the victory in the tiebreaker — on his fifth match point — Nadal grew emotional during his on-court interview and appeared to hold back tears while thanking the crowd in French for its support and explaining that Roland Garros, where he is 110-3, has been the most special place in his career.

Switching to English, he praised Djokovic and the challenge he presents.

“To win against Novak, there’s only one way: to play at your best since the first point until the last,” Nadal said.

For the fifth-seeded Nadal, two hurdles remain — a semifinal Friday, on his 36th birthday, against third-seeded Alexander Zverev, who ousted teen sensation Carlos Alcaraz in four sets; and, if he prevails then, Sunday’s championship match.

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The toll of Tuesday’s quarterfinal, a bruising battle that lasted 4 hours 12 minutes and ended after 1 a.m. local time, may prove the toughest opponent of all.

Nadal, who fractured a rib during a tournament in March and is battling a condition in his left foot that causes chronic pain, brought his doctor to the French Open. During his news conference afterward, he acknowledged for the second time in three days that each match he plays at this French Open may be his last, given his foot condition and uncertainty over how much longer he can continue.

“I am putting everything that I have to try to play this tournament with the best conditions possible, no?” Nadal said. “I don’t know what can happen after, honestly. ... I still like playing for nights like today. But is just a quarterfinals match, no? So I didn’t win anything. So I just give myself a chance to be back on court in two days, play another semifinals here in Roland Garros.”

No player can push Nadal harder than Djokovic, 35, just as no player can push Djokovic harder than Nadal. Djokovic’s edge in their rivalry stands at 30-29; Nadal improved his advantage on clay to 20-8.

Djokovic, competing in his first Grand Slam of the season after he was deported from Australia following a failed legal challenge over his coronavirus vaccination status, had no trouble acknowledging that he lost to a better player.

“He showed why he’s a great champion — staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did,” Djokovic said.

For long stretches, two factors made simply winning one point a soul-sapping ordeal.

Nadal and Djokovic know each other’s games so well, having first battled as teenagers at the 2006 French Open, that they’re wired to anticipate where the ball is heading, much like longtime partners finish each other’s sentences. They’re also such supremely skilled movers on the French Open’s tricky red clay, able to time their slides to perfection, that they’re able to cover almost every inch.

The result: opera-length rallies that demanded something extraordinary — a shot the other couldn’t possibly retrieve — to end them. Precious few points were decided by an ace or the one-two punch of a service blast that set up a winner.

Nadal had labored nearly twice as long as Djokovic to win his fourth-round match Sunday, needing 4 hours 21 minutes to defeat Felix Auger-Aliassime. But from the start Tuesday, he seemed determined to dispel any notion that he was depleted. The first game set the tone: 10 minutes of blistering pace, tremendous “gets” and three break points.

On a cool night, a raucous crowd warmed to the fight. This was the match that tennis fans wanted to see from the moment the tournament’s lopsided 128-player men’s draw was unveiled.

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Djokovic and Nadal, who have 41 Grand Slam titles and 15 French Open championships between them, were put in the same half of the draw — along with Alcaraz, who beat both on clay in early May. With Nadal’s ranking having slipped to No. 5 following an injury-related early exit from the recent clay-court event in Rome, he was drawn to face Djokovic in the quarterfinals.

While the fans didn’t want to see the match so early in the tournament, Nadal didn’t want to play it at night, when cool temperatures alter the way the red clay behaves, taking some of the bounce out of his signature, high-caroming forehands.

But in the stands or on the court, it wasn’t a night for quibbling. Theirs is the greatest rivalry in men’s tennis history. And with both in their mid-30s, it’s possible Tuesday’s meeting was their last on a Grand Slam stage.

Nadal acknowledged as much after his five-set victory over Auger-Aliassime.

“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. … That’s my situation now,” he said.

Nadal was the sharper, more focused player at the outset Tuesday, bolting to an early lead to claim the first set in 52 minutes. After falling in arrears early in the second set, Djokovic ramped up every facet of his play to pull even.

Nadal then reclaimed the upper hand, taking a two-sets-to-one lead. But after falling behind 1-4 in the fourth set, Nadal dug in. He walloped a forehand winner to get on serve and pull even at 5-5, then forced the tiebreaker that settled it.

Asked about the significance of his rivalry with Djokovic, Nadal said Tuesday’s meeting was a “super classic match” and the latest in a long story. But what he wanted to talk about was what he, Djokovic and Roger Federer have achieved in their careers — a shared tale of 61 Grand Slam titles that he doesn’t believe can be reduced to numbers.

“Of course there is always a conversation about the player who finishes with more Slams or who is the best of the history,” he said. “But from my perspective, [that] doesn’t matter that much. We achieve our dreams. We make history in this sport because we did things that didn’t happen before. ... From my perspective, the level of our three is very equal — is not much difference so doesn’t matter.”

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