Rafael Nadal outlasts Novak Djokovic to inch closer to 14th French Open title

Enthralling showdown between Nadal and his old foe lasted more than four hours

Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates winning against Novak Djokovic of Serbia in their men's French Open quarter-final match at Roland Garros in Paris on Wednesday.  EPA
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Rafael Nadal battled to a late-night victory over old foe Novak Djokovic to reach the semi-final of the French Open.

The Spaniard, looking for a 14th Roland Garros title, hustled his way to a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) win over the defending champion and world number one, in an enthralling showdown lasting four hours and 12 minutes.

Epic and entertaining as it was, the match finished at 1.15am local time in temperatures of 12°C, again calling into question the wisdom of tournament chiefs starting their night sessions at 8.45pm.

Nevertheless, it was Nadal’s night, despite there being so much seemingly in Djokovic’s favour.

After all, Nadal has been injured, the match was late in the day as Djokovic preferred, the Serbian had beaten Nadal in the semi-final last year and was determined to draw level on 21 grand-slam titles, having thrown away the chance to break the record in Australia.

But Nadal came hurtling out of the blocks and simply bullied Djokovic for the first 11 games, charging into the lead by a set and 3-0 with a double break.

Djokovic, who saved six break points before succumbing to a seventh in a marathon first game of the second set, looked shell-shocked, his eyes wider than the Arc de Triomphe.

But Nadal’s intensity dropped and Djokovic stopped the bleeding, hauling himself level before nudging 4-3 ahead with a hold in a seventh game that lasted longer than some sets have this fortnight.

Djokovic levelled the match but, while the momentum was all his at the end of the second set, Nadal had recalibrated and raced away with the third.

The cracks were showing as Djokovic angrily swatted the net with his racket, but he broke early in the fourth courtesy of an overturned line call which left Nadal remonstrating with the umpire.

No matter. Nadal saved two set points on the Djokovic serve and from 5-2 down, levelled the set at 5-5.

A match that started in May was now being played in June. Into a tie-break and Nadal roared into a 6-1 lead, Djokovic brought it back to 6-4, but a backhand winner brought the 59th meeting of these two greats to an end.

Djokovic leads the head-to-head 30-29, but more importantly, Nadal still leads the grand-slam titles race and now has a golden opportunity to move two ahead.

“A very tough match,” said Nadal. “Novak is one of the best players in history and playing against him is always an amazing challenge. Today was another one.

“The only way to win against him is to play your best from the first point to the last. A magic night for me.”

Nadal will on Friday face third-seed Alexander Zverev, who knocked out Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz.

“He was a better player, I think, in the important moments,” said Djokovic. “He started very well. I didn’t start so great.

“I was gaining momentum, managed to win the second set and thought OK, you know, 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.

“He showed why he’s a great champion. Staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did.”

The late finish was not lost on the two-time champion, who said: “There are difference of opinions about the night sessions. I think they are starting too late, to be honest.

“But again, TV decides. That’s the world we are living in. Broadcasters say it’s going to be night match, day match. They give the money. They decide.”

Updated: June 01, 2022, 12:39 AM