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 skill and the will to hold off the only man who has beaten him 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 four-hour-and-12 minute 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 — secured at 1:15 a.m. local time Wednesday — did allow Nadal to protect his lead in the career-long race to finish with the most men’s Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal took sole possession of the 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.
“Novak is one of the best players of the history without a doubt,” Nadal said. “Playing him is always an amazing challenge, all the history we have together. Today was another one. To win against Novak there is only one way to play, at your best and first point to the last, and tonight was one of those magic nights for me.”
There was a time, early in his long period of dominance in Paris, when Nadal was no crowd favorite at Roland Garros. The fans traditionally cheer for the underdog and have long cheered for Federer most loudly of all when it came to the Big Three players who have ruled the game for most of the last 20 years.
But the mood has shifted in recent seasons. There is now a statue of Nadal near the entrance of the stadium complex, and throughout Tuesday evening there were chants of “Rafa” even as Djokovic prepared to serve at critical phases of the match.
“For me to feel the love from everyone here in Paris, the most important place of my career, means everything to me,” he said.
Djokovic did not get the chance to play in this year’s Australian Open. He was deported on the eve of the competition after a standoff with the Australian government over his being unvaccinated against Covid-19. But he arrived in Paris and at Tuesday’s match in more convincing form than Nadal, who is without a doubt the greatest men’s clay-court player in history but was very short on matches on the surface this year.
Nadal injured his ribs at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March, losing the final to the American 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, when 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 of Canada 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 seeded fifth and with his longtime physician, Angel Ruiz-Cotorro.
As so often, Nadal 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.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Djokovic said after the match. “It’s not the first time that he, you know, is able to a few days after he’s injured and barely walking to come out 100 percent physically fit. You know, he’s done it many times in his career, so I’m not surprised.”
A year ago, in another stirring night match, Djokovic defeated Nadal in four sets on his way to the title. But this year, Nadal turned the tables even if Djokovic, who served for the fourth set, was twice only one point away from forcing a fifth. But on the first set point, Djokovic lost an extended rally by hitting a backhand into the net. On the second, he decided to be more aggressive but his approach shot was more hopeful than good and Nadal ran to his right and smacked a backhand passing shot winner that Djokovic was never close to reaching.
It was soon 5-5 in the fourth set and Nadal took quick command of the ensuing tiebreaker, just as he had taken quick command of the match, jumping out to a 6-1 lead and then holding on and closing out the victory on his fourth match point with another backhand winner.
“Congratulations to Nadal, he was the best player in the important moments,” Djokovic said. “I managed to win the second set and thought I was back in the game, but then he had another two or three fantastic games again at the beginning of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level.”
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, a German seeded third, on Friday for a place in the men’s singles final.