PARIS (AP) — Rafael Nadal insists he can’t know for sure whether any match at Roland Garros might be his very last at a place he loves, a place he is loved.
For now, if he keeps winning and keeps performing the way he did during his monumental quarterfinal victory over longtime rival Novak Djokovic that began in May and ended in June, Nadal will have more chances to play.
With a mix of brilliant shot-making and his trademark resilience, Nadal got past the top-seeded defending French Open champion Djokovic 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) to move a step closer to his 14th championship at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament and what would be a 22nd major trophy overall, adding to records that he already owns.
“One of those magic nights for me,” Nadal said.
For anyone lucky enough to be there, too — provided they were able to stay awake — or even anyone watching from afar. The match began a little past 9:00 pm Tuesday and concluded more than four hours later, after 1:00 am. Wednesday.
“TV decides,” Djokovic said about the late start. “That’s the world we are living in.”
The bracket said this was a quarterfinal, yes, but it felt like a final, from the quality of play to the quality of effort, from the anticipation that preceded it to the atmosphere that enveloped it.
The only missing ingredient: There was no trophy handed to the winner.
Nadal turns 36 on Friday, when he will face third-seeded Alexander Zverev in the semifinals. When the subject of Nadal’s future was brought up during his on-court interview, he smiled.
“See you, by the way, in two days,” Nadal said. “That’s the only thing that I can say.”
It’ll be difficult for any match the rest of the way to live up to this one.
Nary a game, a point, a stroke or, indeed, a step came with a hint of insouciance. Both men gave their all. Nothing came easily.
Nadal’s 3-0 lead in the second set did him no good; Djokovic ended up taking it and would say later, “I thought, ‘OK, I’m back in the game.'”
But Djokovic’s 3-0 lead in the fourth did him no good, even though he served for it at 5-3, even standing one point from forcing a fifth twice. Nadal saved those set points and broke there, then ran away with the closing tiebreaker, seizing a 6-1 edge and and never losing focus after his first three match points went awry.
“I lost to a better player today,” said Djokovic, who had won 22 sets in a row until the 49-minute opener against Nadal. “Had my chances. Didn’t use them. That’s it.”
This showdown was their 59th, more than any other two men have played each other in the Open era. Nadal narrowed Djokovic’s series lead to 30-29 while improving to 8-2 against his rival at Roland Garros.
Nadal is now 110-3 for his career at the place. Two of those losses came against Djokovic, including in last year’s semifinals. This time, Nadal made sure Djokovic remains behind him in the Slam count with 20. Nadal broke their three-way tie with Roger Federer at that number by capturing the Australian Open in January, when Djokovic was not able to play because he had not been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Before Nadal advanced to his 15th semifinal in Paris, Zverev reached his second in a row by holding off 19-year-old rising star Carlos Alcaraz 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7).
In women’s action Tuesday, 18-year-old American Coco Gauff and 28-year-old Martina Trevisan of Italy reached their first Grand Slam semifinals. The 18th-seeded Gauff beat 2017 U.S. Open champion and 2018 French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens 7-5, 6-2, while the 59th-ranked Trevisan eliminated U.S. Open finalist Leylah Fernandez 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-3.