In the twilight of their great careers, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic reached back for one more sunrise in the quarterfinals of the French Open.
As expected, they delivered a classic, a memorable tennis match that stretched over four hours into four sets and ended after 1 a.m. Paris time. It was compelling, brilliant tennis, just what you would expect from two of this era’s best players.
They are both 36 now, both well acquainted each other after so many other matches. But this was different. This was Nadal, playing on a painful foot, and Djokovic trying to oust master the master of the red clay courts of Roland Garros, something he’s managed twice before.
Not this time, though. Nadal twice fought off set points and prevailed 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4). It was not easy. Nadal didn’t expect it to be.
Once unpopular during his domination of matches at the French, Nadal’s role has been reversed. There is a statue of him outside the complex entrance and the fans, sensing he is near the end of his career, cheer for him.
Each match could be his last there because of the chronic pain in his left foot. He often grimaces on the court, unable to hide the discomfort.
Nadal arrived at the French without much preparation. He injured his ribs in the Indian Wells event in March. Playing with a stress fracture, he was beaten in final by American Taylor Fritz.
There were losses to 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz at the Madrid Open and to Denis Shapovalov at the Italian Open. He arrived in Paris seeded fifth and, and after a grueling five-set victory over 21-year-old Feliz Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round, there was old pal Djokovic waiting for him in the quarters.
A year ago, Djokovic beat Nadal at the French, on the road to nearly winning a Grand Slam. Nadal faded from most of the remainder of that season after that loss.
This time, Djokovic arrived after missing the Australian Open, deported from the country because he refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The French offered a return to high-level, Grand Slam tennis. But Nadal provided a speed bump on the trip.
The loss trimmed Djokovic’s career record against Nadal to 30-29. But at Roland Garros, on the red clay surface that he dominates, Nadal has an 8-2 lead.