PARIS — For a man who did not want to play Novak Djokovic at night, Rafael Nadal certainly made the best of the situation.
Whatever the hour and whatever the surface, Nadal remains one of the supreme fighters and problem solvers in sports. Though Nadal did not have the clout as a 13-time French Open champion to influence the scheduling, he did have the strength and the will to hold off the only man who has beaten him in twice at Roland Garros.
Nadal, who will turn 36 on Friday, was irresistible at the start of his latest marathon with Djokovic and sometimes shaky in the middle but he found a way well after midnight to save two set points down the stretch and cross the finish line in first with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory.
This triumph did not secure Nadal the trophy. It was only a quarterfinal on a chilly Tuesday evening when scarves were definitely in order on the Philippe Chatrier Court (some fans chose to wrap their entire bodies in Spanish or Serbian flags).
But the victory did allow Nadal to protect his lead in the career-long race to finish with the most Grand Slam men’s singles titles. Nadal took sole possession of the men’s record with 21 by winning the Australian Open in January, breaking his tie with his longtime rivals Djokovic and Roger Federer, who both have won 20.
Djokovic did not get the chance to play that tournament in Australia. He was deported on the eve of the competition after a standoff with the Australian government over his unvaccinated status. But he arrived in Paris in and Tuesday’s match in more convincing form than Nadal, without doubt the greatest men’s clay-court player in history but very short on matches on the surface this year.
After injuring his ribs at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March, losing the final to Taylor Fritz while playing with a stress fracture, he missed most of the early clay-court season and only returned for the Madrid Open in mid May where he was upset by his 19-year-old Spaniard compatriot, Carlos Alcaraz, in the quarterfinals.
Then came the Italian Open, his only other clay-court event before Roland Garros, where Nadal was beaten in three sets by Denis Shapovalov in a round-of-16 night match in Rome in which he hobbled to the finish, grimacing in pain as his chronic left foot condition resurfaced. He was downbeat after that defeat but did not rule out playing in the French Open and arrived in Paris with his longtime physician Angel Ruiz-Cotorro.
As so often, he proved able to play and prevail through the pain, fighting to a five-set victory in the fourth round over the 21-year-old Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime and then taking on Djokovic for the 59th time on tour and the 10th time at Roland Garros.
Djokovic still leads their overall series 30-29, but Nadal has now extended his lead over Djokovic in French Open matches to 8-2 and will now face Alexander Zverev, the No. 3 seed, on Friday for a place in the men’s singles final.