By the end of the third set alone, Rafael Nadal had played 112 career matches at Roland Garros, as the sun and temperature dropped and the chants of “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” filled the evening air, the man known as the King of Clay showed precisely what it meant to him.
With each sprint-slide-and-stretch to reach a seemingly unreachable shot from the yellow racket of his opponent, Felix Auger-Aliassime; with every winner right around the corner; with each well-hit volley, Nadal would jump or throw an uppercut or shout “Vamos!” – and, often, all of the above.
Nadal passed his first serious test of this French Open by beating ninth seed Auger-Aliassime 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in nearly four and a half hours of tennis entertaining and equal. the fourth round on Sunday at Court Philippe Chatrier.
“That’s why I just try to enjoy it as much as possible.”
And the reward for getting through this one? A tantalizing match against his rival Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals on Tuesday.
Nadal improved to 3-0 in five-set matches in the clay-court tournament which he dominated like no one has ever dominated a Grand Slam tournament. Overall, he’s 109-3 here, and two of those losses have come to Djokovic, including in last year’s semi-finals when they last met.
The importance of rivalry: Tuesday’s meeting will be their 59th, more than two other men have faced each other in the sport’s professional era. Djokovic leads 30-28, although Nadal has a 7-2 advantage at Roland Garros.
“We have a lot of history together,” said Nadal – who attended Saturday night’s Champions League final won by his favorite club Real Madrid – and didn’t return to his room until after midnight .
Looking at the bigger picture, former world number one Nadal’s record 13 championships at Roland Garros is part of his men’s record haul of 21 Grand Slam trophies. Current world number one Djokovic, a two-time French Open title winner, is just one behind Nadal in the total Slam tally, tied with Roger Federer at 20.
Djokovic beat 15th seed Diego Schwartzman 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 earlier on Sunday. And he won all 12 sets he contested in the tournament.
The other quarter-final in their half of the men’s group is between third-seeded Alexander Zverev, 2020 US Open runner-up, and sixth-seeded Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spaniard who leads the tour. with four titles this year.
Zverev beat 131st qualifier Bernabe Zapata Miralles 7-6 (13/11), 7-5, 6-3, and Alcaraz posted a back-to-the-net, between-the-legs lob while wrapping up the day’s program. with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 win over No. 21 seed Karen Khachanov.
Two women’s quarterfinals have also been set: 18-year-old Coco Gauff against 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens in an all-American match, and 2021 US Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez of Canada against the Italian. Martina Trevisan, 59th. .
The other matches in the fourth round will take place on Monday.
Wrapped in souvenir orange towels and Roland-Garros blankets of different hues, spectators enjoyed every last drop of drama, chanting the first names of the two players and rising to applaud the many spectacular exchanges.
One member of the public, however, did not stay for the fifth set: Toni Nadal, who is Rafael’s uncle and coached him to 16 of his Grand Slam titles, but is now assisting coach Auger-Aliassime .
Uncle Toni, as many call him, stayed away from the two players’ guest boxes – how could he pick a side? – and instead sat in the front row just behind one of the end lines, applauding the two male winners and avoiding showing any pleasure derived from anyone’s mistakes, until he left at the start of the deciding set .
He missed quite a few finishes.
“He raised his level when he needed to,” Auger-Aliassime said.
Nadal hadn’t dropped a set in the tournament before facing Auger-Aliassime, a 21-year-old Canadian equipped with a big serve and forehand.
“I suffered,” Nadal said.
Since starting the season with a 20-0 record, including a title at the Australian Open in January when Djokovic was not allowed to participate because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19, Nadal had to deal with a rib injury and a recurrence of the chronic pain in his left foot that has plagued him for years.
He had repeatedly told Paris that he had no idea how well he would be able to play.
If he was in pain on Sunday, it’s impossible to know. And, more precisely, impossible to say. His movement was unimpeded, his relentlessness intact.
He will have time to recover and prepare to face Djokovic, who spent around half of his time on court on Sunday.