As the two greatest rivals converged at the French Open once more, plenty of factors pointed in favour of Novak Djokovic. While both he and Rafael Nadal had arrived in the clay court season full of uncertainty, only Djokovic had taken notable steps forward since. Nadal, meanwhile, still searched for his best form after his fractured rib. His preparation was complicated with a flareup of his chronic foot injury. His form in Paris was, so far, subpar.
But this is Nadal at Roland Garros, the man who has won 110 times in his home with just three losses, who has shown over the course of his 17 years that form and other frivolous trivia have little relevance in the face of total, unprecedented dominance. In a match that began in May and ended in June, Nadal blew Djokovic away in the opening stages, then absorbed a multiple strong fightbacks before rising to win 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4).
In the historic 59th meeting of the rivalry that never ends, Nadal moves to 29-30 against Djokovic in their head-to-head record. He will face Alexander Zverev in the semi-final, who played the best big match of his career as he smothered the hype and edged past an often erratic Carlos Alcaraz, snuffing out the surrounding hype as he won 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(7).
When they met each other for the first time in their careers in 2006 on these courts and in this very round, Nadal was a one-time grand slam champion while Djokovic represented Serbia and Montenegro. Sixteen years on, this occasion marked the first time in the Open era that two players with 20 grand slam titles have faced each other.
Nadal arrived on his court and set the tone from the beginning, forcing his way inside the baseline and looking to unload on his forehand down the line, the historic barometer of his confidence. He moved extremely well, constantly countering under ample early pressure. During the numerous tight early games, Nadal broke Djokovic’s serve in the opening game after several deuces and then immediately consolidated it.
When Djokovic generated break points in his second service game with a short burst of spotless returning, Nadal rose to immediately snuff them out and he broke for a second time with a thunderous forehand down-the-line winner.
In those early stages, as a sublime Nadal took the set, Djokovic struggled. His backhand sprayed atypical unforced errors, returns landed short and he struggled to keep up. Nadal punished him accordingly, winning four of Djokovic’s first six service games and establishing a 6-2, 3-0 lead with a double break.
It was only a matter of time before Djokovic asserted himself on the match, and it was at this moment that he did. Djokovic scythed Nadal’s serve down with his return and he slowly moved on top of the baseline as it was he who dictated the exchanges, crushing the ball and rushing the Nadal forehand as the Spaniard began the ball short. Despite how he flitted through six of the next seven games, they played out a series of interminable, brutal deuce games as Djokovic levelled up the match.
Djokovic’s level sharply rose, but it did not last. Nadal opened the third set by continually looking to reach the net and he again broke serve immediately. As he did so, Djokovic struggled to keep up. He played a sloppy game at 3-1, offering up the double break with a loose backhand error. As Djokovic’s errors continued to flow, there would be no response in the third set.
But the momentum only continued to swing. Djokovic dialled back in on his return of serve, landing countless returns at Nadal’s feet. As he broke serve in Nadal’s opening service game, he had again returned to the top of the baseline, putting constant pressure on Nadal and presenting himself a chance to serve out the set. But Nadal charged, saving two set points then nailing an inside-out forehand winner to break.
As the fourth set tiebreak began, Nadal soared. He was timing his down-the-line forehand better than at any point since the opening set. He nailed three forehand winners in a row to begin the tiebreak and with every point the task before Djokovic became increasingly bleak. His time in Nadal’s home this year ended with a thunderous backhand down-the-line winner off the Spaniard’s racket.
Earlier on Tuesday evening, Zverev played one of the best big matches of his young career, remaining rock solid against Alcaraz and snuffing out the surrounding hype as he won 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(7). With his victory, Zverev has unlocked a notable milestone by attaining a top 10 win at a grand slam for the first time in his career.
More notably, once the tour’s great young hope himself, Zverev gave a clear reminder of his own ability and the threat he is to the best players at the top of his game. Alcaraz, meanwhile, fought until the end and departed his first grand slam tournament with a lesson that should only further augment his growth. “I leave the court, leave the tournament with the head very high,” said Alcaraz. “I fight until the last ball. I fought until the last second of the match, and I’m proud of it.”