Nadal Wins Roland Garros Thriller Over Djokovic

Rafael Nadal (photo: Jürgen Hasenkopf)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, May 31, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

The blockbuster quarterfinal clash between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the French Open Tuesday evening is one that every tennis fan around the world had looked forward to with great anticipation since the beginning of the Parisian fortnight over a week ago. It was a prized ticket for those who could afford to ante up the big money and attend in person, and it was certainly must-see TV for the rest of the world.

Unlike many of their previous head-to-head meetings, which usually occurred in the semifinal round or in the final, the 10th Djokovic-Nadal Roland Garros showdown took place in the quarterfinal round – the last eight. It didn’t matter. There was the same intensity from both champions, each playing their fifth match of the tournament. This time, they entertained fans that filled Court Philippe-Chatrier to capacity and created an electric atmosphere with their exciting – and at times grueling and grinding – back-and-forth rallies. In the end, though, it was Nadal who was the better performer – just a little bit better – on this late-spring night.

Nadal won the four-hour and 12-minute thriller, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4), to advance to Friday’s semifinal round against World No. 3 and third seed Alexander Zverev of Germany, who defeated World No. 6 and sixth seed Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7).

“I am putting everything that I have to try to play this tournament with the best conditions possible, no?” Nadal said during his post-match press conference. “I don’t know what can happen after, honestly, but here I think I gonna be fine.”

Going into the 59th meeting of their historic rivalry, with tennis history at stake, it was unclear whether Nadal, who turns 36 on Friday, would have much left after needing nearly four-and-a-half hours to beat Felix Auger-Aliassime, nearly 15 years his junior, in five grueling sets. But he led Djokovic 19-8 on clay, despite losing their most recent match, in the 2021 French Open semifinals. Djokovic would go on to win the Roland Garros title for the second time.

However, with his sights set on winning a record-extending 14th Roland Garros title on a court where he’s won 13 of his record 21 major titles, Nadal had a look of determination on his face from the outset of Tuesday evening’s match against the top-seeded Djokovic. He brought a 109-3 lifetime record at Roland Garros into the contest.

“I [am] going to fight for it,” Nadal said Sunday during his press conference. “Two weeks and a half ago … I don’t know if I would be able to be here. So just enjoying the fact that I am here for one more year. And, being honest, every match that I play here, I don’t know if [it’s] going to be my last match here in Roland Garros in my tennis career, no? That’s my situation now.”

Nadal has come a long way since winning his first French Open in 2005, just days after he celebrated his 19th birthday. Now, he’s been through a “tough process” that has included recovering from a cracked rib suffered in March during the Indian Wells championship match as well as dealing with chronic pain in his surgically repaired left foot that kept him sidelined for much of the second-half of the 2021 season.

Meanwhile, the defending champion Djokovic, who has had an easier go of it to reach the quarterfinal round, is in pursuit of tying Nadal’s tally of 21 Grand Slam titles. He came into his latest tussle with Nadal with four clean-slate wins to the good. After beating Diego Schwartzman in straight sets to book his quarterfinal match against Nadal, knowing he needed to beat the acclaimed King of Clay to advance to the semifinals, the 35-year-old Serbian called it “a huge challenge and probably the biggest one that you can have here in Roland Garros.”

Djokovic said: “I’m glad that I didn’t spend too much time on the court myself up to the quarterfinals knowing that … playing [Nadal] in Roland Garros is always a physical battle.”

As it happened, Nadal won an almost-perfect 49-minute opening set by a double-break 6-2 score. He broke Djokovic in a 10-minute opening game that covered 12 points and took three break points to get the job done. Then, the Spaniard broke again in the fifth game and served out the set. Nadal hit 12 winners to just six unforced errors, while Djokovic managed eight winners but made nine unforced errors. Nadal was in the zone. It was the first set Djokovic had lost since losing to Carlos Alcaraz in the Madrid semifinals. He had won 22 straight sets.

In his previous 58 matches against Djokovic, the player who won the first set went on to win the match 50 times. It remained to be seen if this was a good omen for Nadal. However, after the first hour and 14 minutes of near-perfect tennis by Nadal, he led 6-4 and was up a double-break 3-0 in the second set.

The opening game of the second set was a lengthy 18-point rollercoaster, in which Nadal broke the Serbian on his seventh attempt. Soon, though, Djokovic broke back and consolidated the break to trail by a game. However, Nadal hung tough during his service game in the sixth but Djokovic remained resilient, too. He broke the Spaniard on his fifth attempt in a 20-point game that lasted 18 minutes and 43 seconds that evened the set at 3-all. Then, he fought off a break point and held for a 4-3 advantage in another lengthy, 14-point game.

Djokovic went on to break Nadal, winning six of the last seven games, to garner the 85-minute second set 6-4 in back of 18 winners and three breaks of serve to level the match at a set each. At 20 minutes past 11 p.m., the night was just getting started in Paris. A graphic on Tennis Channel in the U.S. reminded viewers that when Djokovic beat Nadal in five grueling sets to win the 2012 Australian Open title, that match lasted five hours and 53 minutes and finished at 1:37 a.m. local time. It remains the longest major final in the Open Era. This time, after two-and-a-quarter hours, the 59th Djokovic-Nadal battle would become a best-of-3 survival-of-the-fittest, winner-take-all affair.

As the third set unfolded for the players – and many fans could be seen covering themselves with unfolded blankets as the nighttime temperature (about 14º Celsius, 57º Fahrenheit) became downright chilly – Nadal broke at love and consolidated the break for a quick 2-0 lead. He broke Djokovic for a second time to go ahead 4-1 and increased the lead to 5-2 after an exchange of easy holds. Then, at three minutes past midnight as Tuesday turned into Wednesday in Paris – and the match clock read 2:59 – Nadal won the set 6-2 on his second set point after Djokovic hit a fourth-shot forehand return long, his 16th unforced error of the set. Although Nadal hit just eight winners in the set, he also won 70 percent (14 of 20) of his first-serve points and converted both of his break-point opportunities.

Then, in the fourth set, Djokovic wasted no time in establishing a 3-0 lead with a break of Nadal sandwiched in between a couple of service holds and, soon, extended it to 4-2 as the quarterfinal reached the 3:30 mark. While neither player seemed to show any signs of fatigue – each was doing their best to manage their energy – it seemed inevitable that this match was going to go the five-set distance. Or would it? Before it could, Nadal saved two set points and broke Djokovic to get back on serve at 4-5. In a nearly-nine minute game, he hit a fourth-shot forehand winner that seemed to energize him and the crowd, who began to shout “Vamos Rafa!”

Next, Nadal leveled the set at 5-all with an easy hold, but Djokovic countered with one of his own to go back ahead 6-5 as the match clock read 3:55. Soon, as 1 a.m. came and passed, Nadal held at love and it was on to a fourth-set tie-break.

In the tie-break, Nadal went to work and gained a pair of mini-breaks to go ahead 4-1. However, Djokovic came back; he wasn’t ready to quit. At 6-1 Nadal and with match points in reserve, Djokovic saved three of them to draw to within 6-4. However, Nadal had one last burst of energy in him and won a 19-shot rally with a final winner to capture the tie-break 7-4 as the match clock hit 4:12. Finally, the celebration was on for Nadal. His 29th career triumph over Djokovic – and 20th on clay – would go down as an historic and memorable one.

Djokovic was accepting of his loss during his post-match press conference. He said: “I gave my best. I know I could have played better. I’m proud of fighting and staying until the last shot. As I said, I lost to a better player today. Had my chances. Didn’t use them. That’s it. You know, over four hours’ battle, and I have to accept this defeat.”

By the end of the epic quarterfinal victory, Nadal had outpointed Djokovic 148-130. He finished with 57 winners to 43 unforced errors and converted seven of 17 break-point chances. He won 65 percent (64 of 98) of his first-serve points and backed it with a 60-percent efficiency (24 of 40) on his second-serve points. Meanwhile, Djokovic hit 48 winners, made 53 unforced errors, broke Nadal in four of 12 opportunities and won 64 percent (61 of 95) of his first-serve points – but only 42 percent (19 of 45) of his second-serve points. In the end, it all added up to a tremendously satisfying victory for Nadal, an early birthday present if you will. But according to him, there’s still more to accomplish.

“It has been a very emotional night for me. I’m still playing for nights like today,” Nadal said in press. “But it’s just a quarterfinal match, no? So I didn’t win anything. So I just [need to] give myself a chance to be back on court in two days, play another semifinals here in Roland Garros. [It] means a lot to me.”

By the numbers

Rafael Nadal entered Tuesday’s match owning a 7-2 head-to-head advantage over Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros. The quarterfinal match was one of historic firsts. It was the first time in the Open Era that a men’s match featured two men with at least 20 major title victories, 1,000 match wins or 300 Grand Slam wins. It was also the 18th major meeting between Nadal and Djokovic, most between two men in the Open Era.