As the kids like to say these days, it’s on.
Far sooner than many may have hoped, Novak Djokovic, the reigning French Open champion, will take on Rafael Nadal, a 13-time champion at Roland Garros, in a quarterfinal match on Tuesday, the first rematch of two of the leading men’s players since their epic semifinal last June.
It took some of Nadal’s greatest tennis to survive a five-set, four-hour, 21-minute thriller Sunday evening against Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, but the match that so many crave is on the horizon.
“A huge challenge and probably the biggest one that you can have here in Roland Garros,” Djokovic said, anticipating Nadal, after his fourth straight-sets win, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, a pummeling of Diego Schwartzman of Argentina. “I’m ready for it.”
Perhaps more than Nadal, who survived one of the great scares of his storied French Open career against Auger-Aliassime, the athletic and tireless Canadian with a booming serve and big forehand.
“We have a lot of history together,” Nadal said of Djokovic.
They have played each other 58 times, with Djokovic holding a 30-28 edge. It is a classic clash of styles, Nadal blasting away and running wild on the clay, his favorite surface, and Djokovic bringing his exquisite timing, incomparable steel, and the most varied arsenal in the game.
Even more, it is a clash of two men whose personalities and trajectories, especially over the past year, have pushed them into different realms of the sport and public consciousness. One is a beloved citizen of the world, the other a polarizing, outspoken iconoclast so set in his beliefs that he was prepared to spend his last prime years on the sidelines rather than receive a vaccination against Covid-19.
There were scattered boos as Djokovic was introduced on the Suzanne Lenglen Court on Sunday. Fans at the main court, Philippe Chatrier, chanted “Rafa, Rafa,” through the evening, urging on the Spanish champion who is immortalized with a nine-foot statue outside the stadium.
Since Djokovic pulled off the nearly impossible by beating Nadal at last year’s French Open, Nadal has been jousting indirectly with his chief rival.
Djokovic mounted an all-out quest last year to pull ahead of Nadal and Roger Federer in Grand Slam tournament titles and nearly did it, evening the Big Three at 20 wins each for six months and coming within one match of surging ahead. Nadal, who largely ended his 2021 season after the French Open because of a chronic foot injury, said finishing his career with the most major championships mattered little to him.
Djokovic has refused to get vaccinated and questioned established science. Nadal got vaccinated long ago, because, he said, he is a tennis player and in no position to question what experts say is best for public health.
Djokovic has tried to spearhead an independent players organization, the Professional Tennis Players Association, which he launched with a handful of other players in 2020. Nadal has refused to join the group and remains a member of the player council of the ATP, which has kept Djokovic’s organization on the outside of the sport’s decision-making process.
On the court, they have captured each other’s most treasured possessions. After beating Nadal in the semifinals last year, Djokovic erased a two-set deficit and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final to win his second French Open title.
In January, after being largely inactive for six months, unsure whether his foot would ever allow him to play again, Nadal won the Australian Open, which Djokovic had won nine times, more than any other Grand Slam tournament.
Djokovic had won three consecutive Australian Opens and traveled to the country expecting to be allowed to defend his titles. He had tested positive for Covid-19 and recovered in mid-December. He thought that was supposed to gain him entry into the country despite its strict rules prohibiting unvaccinated visitors. He was detained at the border and deported after government officials deemed his stance against vaccinations a threat to public health.
As the controversy unfolded, Nadal said in some ways he felt sorry for his rival, then kicked a bit of dirt at Djokovic, who was locked in a Melbourne hotel with asylum seekers.
“He knew the conditions since a lot of months ago, Nadal said, “so he makes his own decision.”
The shadow sparring has continued in Paris. Djokovic complained that the ATP had not involved his player organization in its discussions with Wimbledon after the tournament barred players from Russia and Belarus in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The tour responded by announcing it would not award rankings points for the event, a move Nadal defended as necessary for protecting all players.
They even have different approaches to their careers. Djokovic said Sunday that being ranked No. 1 was “was always the highest goal beginning every season, particularly being in the era with Federer, Nadal.”
A few hours later, Nadal, currently ranked fifth, said he never paid any attention to his ranking. Just a number. Not important to him.
With their showdown now less than 48 hours away, the conversation has turned to whether they will play during the day or night, with each making his preference known to tournament organizers.
Nadal favors playing during the day, when the weather is warmer, and the ball bounces high off the clay, right into his wheelhouse, and flies off his racket.
Djokovic excels at night, especially in Australia and at the U.S. Open, when conditions are colder and slower. His match against Nadal last year turned when the sun went down, the temperature dropped and Nadal struggled to hit the ball through the court. Nadal said last week he did not believe clay-court tennis should happen at night. Too cold and too damp, which makes the clay stick to balls, giving them the feel of heavy rocks on his racket.
Nadal won the initial scheduling battle Sunday, playing his match on the Philippe Chatrier Court. Organizers put Djokovic on the second court, Suzanne Lenglen, a smaller and more open venue with just one level of seats, making it susceptible to high winds.
Djokovic managed the challenge, making Schwartzman seem like a sparring partner who forced Djokovic to run and stay on the court long enough — a little more than two hours — but not too long. After one spirited sprint to the net for a perfectly feathered drop-shot return, he put his finger to his ear, asking the crowd to give him his due.
Nadal had no such concerns, though he struggled from the start of the chilly and breezy evening. Forty minutes into the match, he was down 5-1 and two breaks of serve, the rarest of events for someone who came into the match with a 108-3 record in this tournament.
Nadal often kicks clean the nub of tape in the middle of the baseline before heading to his chair for a changeover. As Auger-Aliassime, pumped his fist after clinching the first set, 6-3, Nadal spent an extra few seconds working the line with his foot, taking an extra moment seemingly to prepare for the challenging places this match was going.
Nadal appeared to take control of the match in winning the second and third sets but, unlike Djokovic, Nadal has been anything but clinical at Roland Garros this year, losing opportunities to close out opponents like the assassin he has been in years past.
It happened again on Sunday. In the end, at the crucial moments of the last two games in the final set, it took a magical, on-the-run forehand flick for a down-the-line passing shot, an all-out sprint to catch up to a drop volley, a perfect second serve on the T, two more all-out chases and two deep, signature forehands for Nadal to set up his showdown with Djokovic.
Just as everyone was hoping.