Anyone who thought that Rafa Nadal was reaching the end of his career, will be red -faced with embarrassment following his ejection of the current French Open champion from this year’s event thereby not only re-confirming his status as the King of Clay, but also that Court Philippe Chatrier in Roland Garros remains his tennis home.
Tonight, just a quarterfinal match, not the final… But still a super classic match and in a big scenario. Between Novak, Roger, myself — we have an amazing story together facing each other in the most important matches for such a long time. So that makes things more special and more emotional. Rafa Nadal
He defeated Novak Djokovic, 6-2 4-6 6-2 7-6(4) in a pulsating quarter final match that was appreciated by the packed crowd to reach the lats four for a 15th time.
The Spaniard now remains on course to win his 14th title at Roland Garros and no doubt to Djokovic’s chagrin, extend his Grand Slam singles record to 22, two ahead of the Serbian. He also moves closer to trail Djokovic 30-29 in their personal 59 match rivalry.
“It was a very tough match, Novak is one of the best players in history, and all the history we have,” an emotional Nadal said after finishing the four-hour, 20-minute match at 1-17am Tuesday morning local time, with 57 winners.
“There is only one way to beat Novak and that is to play at your best,” and he certainly rose to the occasion to avenge his semi-final loss to the Serb at last year’s event.
In addition Nadal takes over the title of favourite following the earlier dismissal of the third title contender, Carlos Alcaraz who went down fighting to Alexander Zverev in what proved to be a remarkable day for tennis fans though no doubt, many will be sorry too see the Spanish 19-year-old leave the event but, as Zverev pointed out to the crowd after his 6-4 6-4 4-6 7-6(7) victory, he will be winning it many times in the future. “I hope I can win it before he starts beating us all and we will have no chance at all!” the German third seed said.
But the spotlight was really focused on the evening’s ‘Blockbuster’ match and while it wasn’t an epic, it lived up to expectations with Nadal breaking Djokovic in the first game of the first three sets putting the world No.1 on the back foot each time.
When the 13-time champion pocketed the opener for the loss of just two games and swept into a 3-0 lead in the second, it looked all over but Djokovic finally responded as everyone expected. The rallies became gruelling as the Serb battled hard through six deuce games winning six of the last seven games to level at a set all. That set took 88-minutes and set the tone for the rest of the evening.
But the third set was in complete contrast as Nadal ran away with it in just 30-minutes to pull ahead to gain a psychological advantage for Djokovic had never beaten his rival when trailing by two sets to one.
Djokovic had a chance to push the match into a fifth set when serving for it at 5-4 only to fail converting two set points as Nadal recovered the break and forced a tiebreak where he took control by streaking into a 6-1 lead and then holding on for his 11th straight win at slam level (having won in Australia) and his 110th at the French Open.
“It has been a very emotional night for me. I’m still playing for nights like today,” Nadal said in the early morning. “But it’s just a quarter-final 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 semi-finals here in Roland Garros. Means a lot to me.”
Reflecting on the rivalry which exists between the two he added: “Of course we have a lot of history together. A lot of important moments playing against each other. That’s the truth. In that case, always is a special match, playing against Novak.
“Tonight, just a quarterfinal match, not the final… But still a super classic match and in a big scenario. Between Novak, Roger, myself — we have an amazing story together facing each other in the most important matches for such a long time. So that makes things more special and more emotional.”
Leading into Paris Djokovic had won nine straight matches and 22 sets in a row, but the early breaks and errors cost him.
“Congratulations to Nadal. He was a better player I think in important moments,” Djokovic admitted.
“Started very well. I didn’t start so great, 2-6 0-3, double break down. I was gaining momentum as I was coming back in the second set, managed to win the second set, and I thought, I’m back in the game.
“But then he had another two, three fantastic games at the beginning of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level in those particular moments at the beginning of all sets except the fourth…. he showed why he’s a great champion. Staying mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did. Congrats to him and his team. No doubt he deserved it.”
As already mentioned, earlier in the day Alexander Zverev avenged his Madrid loss to Carlos Alcaraz holding off the teenager in a tight four-setter.
Zverev dominated the first two sets as Alcaraz surprisingly failed to make any inroads into the Zverev serve which helped the German dictate the match from the baseline and, as he looked to be closing it out, suddenly found himself facing the player who has so excited tennis fans over the past few months and more especially, at Roland Garros.
Nerves suddenly started to affect Zverev as his serve lost its bite as Alcaraz fought back to the delight of the roaring crowd.
But to his credit, Zverev got back on track to force to a tie-break where the pair exchanged mini-breaks and after Alcaraz was denied a set point his 6’6” opponent hit a backhand winner off a second serve to seal the deal and end the young Spaniard’s 14-match winning streak.
“I knew that I had to play my absolute best tennis today, from the start on, and I’m happy that I did that,” Zverev told the crowd. “Obviously he kept on coming back, he’s an incredible player. I told him at the net, [he was] going to win this tournament a lot of times, not only once.
“The match was turning his way,” said Zverev of the fourth. “So I’m extremely happy that I won the tie-break and didn’t have to play a five-set match and be disappointed after a five-set match again, like I was last year after the semi-finals.”
Alcaraz accepted his loss with grace.
“I have to take the lessons today. It was a tough match and close match,” the youngster from Murcia said. “I could say I didn’t start well, and in this level, quarter-final of a Grand Slam, you are playing against the best players in the world, so you have to start the match better than I did today.
“I have to improve for the next Grand Slam or next matches. But I would say I’m not far away from reaching a semi-final or being able to win a Grand Slam… I would say I have the level, I have the confidence to win a Grand Slam or reach the semi-finals next time.”
Nadal and Zverev will get two full days of rest until their Friday semi-final, the 3rd of June, Nadal’s 36th birthday!
On Tuesday another 19-year-old will attempt to reach the last four. Denmark’s Holger Rune takes on Norway’s Casper Ruud and Andrey Rublev meets former US Open champion Marin Cilic. All four are seeking to reach their first French Open semi-final.