They entered the court in May, they left him in June. And in the end, as is often the case at Roland Garros, it is Rafael Nadal who raises his arms to heaven. After a breathless game, the Spanish player beat, on the night of Tuesday 31 May to Wednesday 1er June, his rival Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the Paris tournament (6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 [7-4]). Possible last dance between two tennis giants, their 59e Clash on the circuit lasted into the middle of the night – the evening session ending after 4:12 p.m.
“To be honest, every game I play, I don’t know if it will be my last here at Roland Garros and in my career.” warned Rafael Nadal before the meeting. The Majorcan started the game as if he wanted to spin into orbit. Forget the inevitable foot injury in doing so “Living with pain” on a daily basis for years and this body at soon thirty-six spring. Even if he hates evening sessions, the player still wants to live Parisian evenings. In front of his entire clan, a sign that they too feel the finish line approaching, the Spaniard pushed back the inexorable.
An old couple who know each other by heart, Nadal and Djokovic still manage to surprise each other, after 58 meetings around the world. In this unparalleled rivalry, the truth of one day is not the truth of the next. Did Nadal think he was tired of his long showdown with Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime in the previous round? He attacks relentlessly, seeming to seek the knockout. Facing Novak Djokovic, one of the few to have found the key to defeating him on his fetish surface, Rafael Nadal knows that any inaccuracy, any hesitation will be exploited to envy. Then, regaining his former blows, with formidable depth and returning inexorably, the Spanish player took control of the exchanges. By 2020, that strategy had paid off, and the Majorcan had corrected his rival in the final of the Paris tournament. In 2021, it was not enough: despite a pocketed first set, Nadal had ceded his crown to Djokovic.
An audience in unison behind “Rafa”
What 59e will the summit be the last? He smelled it. The Parisian evening crowd was not mistaken, keeping the post in the stands. If Nadal has not always been spared over the years by the Roland-Garros audience, who preferred the aesthetics of Roger Federer or just an outsider, time is running out. And at a time when the Majorcan is slipping at the length of a press conference that could be his last dance at Roland-Garros, Paris prefers vertigo to silence. And he pushed the “king of the beaten earth” to extend his reign to the end of the night.
Once again reduced to the role of the other, the hero’s opponent, the obstacle to celebrate in a circle, Novak Djokovic did not dismantle. The titleholder ended up thriving in this unloved role, he who suffered so much from reaping only the crumbs of love and gratitude left by Federer and Nadal.
Revanchard, after a mishap in front of an opponent who has regained his accuracy as a clay geometer, the world number one did not give up. “I didn’t start well, but coming back to a round everywhere, I thought I was back.”, explained the Serb after the meeting. In turn, after a poor start to the second set, Djokovic took control of a game at the wrong time, where the two dancers never kept pace. Hindered in his quest for greatness at the Australian Open by the country’s health rules – and his choice not to be vaccinated against Covid-19 – the Serb did not intend to give up his title without a fight.
“Come on Rafa, the most stubborn is you”, claimed a spectator at the launch of the third set. Reference to the Roland Garros quote engraved since this year on the frontispiece of the tennis court which is the Philippe-Chatrier court, “Victory belongs to the most stubborn”. In this respect, the “bull of Manacor” would even be almost stubborn.
Anchored in his certainties and this clay has become his kingdom, Rafael Nadal lives the moment. If by chance he won a fourteenth title Auteuil gate on Sunday, the Spaniard could burn “No tomorrow” on the ocher of the central court, so much so that its trajectory depends on the “cost as it costs”. “I said that.” [lors du tournoi de] Rome that I was going to have my doctor with me here. And that having my doctor here allows me to do things that relieve me. ”blew the man to the twenty-one Grand Slam trophies, promising to work out “When.” [son] tournament will be over ».
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next”
Handicapped for years by scaphoid bone necrosis – Muller-Weiss Syndrome – of his left foot, which leaves him with little respite, Nadal makes no secret of the fact that the treatments he is receiving could speed up his end of career. “I give everything I have to try to play this tournament in the best possible conditions. I don’t know what might happen nexthe sums up. But here, I think it will work. »
For his part, Novak Djokovic did not “Not surprised at all” by the umpteenth rebirth of his rival. “This is not the first time he has been able to return to 100%, and physically ready, a few days after being injured and barely able to walk.found the world number 1. He has done it many times in his career. »
In the night from Tuesday to Wednesday, the Serb had the opportunity to equalize in two innings everywhere, but failed to materialize. Conversely, after a decisive one-way game, his Spanish opponent won the match without trembling.
“He managed to play his best tennis at key moments, he deserves this victory, without a doubt.”, Djokovic acknowledged. If in their mano à mano, the world number one still leads, 30 victories to 29, it is not in his Roland-Garros garden that he will catch up with his rival in the number of Grand Slam tournaments won. Two steps away from a new crown, and after his quarterfinal demonstration, Rafael Nadal will be the favorite in the semi-final against German Alexander Zverev (world number 3) on Friday, and a possible final.
“It was a very intense night. That’s when I’m still playing, ” smiled the winner. If the match smelled of finals, because of the “Great story in common” linking Nadal and Djokovic, who will celebrate his 36th birthday on Friday, the day of the semi-final, is not believed to have happened. “It’s only a quarterfinal, I didn’t win anything”insists Nadal, for whom “The main goal is to maintain the level at which I played today.”
There is a reassuring I-don’t-know-what to hear Rafael Nadal’s groans pace the exchanges. At Roland Garros, where they have rocked the audience since 2005, they have the reassuring scent of a madeleine. The day the Majorcan hands over his racket, his cries will haunt the central court, memories of his glory years. As the day draws to a close, with the Majorcan hinting that this year could be the culmination of his passage through Auteuil, Nadal has once again postponed the deadline. “I just gave myself the opportunity to return to this court in two days.”savored the player, who did not skimp on his “Thank you, thank you, thank you” (in French in the text) to the audience at the end of the match.