Rafael Nadal won the 59th installment of his legendary rivalry against Novak Djokovic, advancing to the Roland Garros semi-finals with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4) victory in a match that began Tuesday night and finished after 1 am Wednesday morning in Paris.
The Spaniard led by a set and a double break before Djokovic stormed back to level, but Nadal reasserted himself with a dominant third set. It was the World No. 1 who started strongest in the fourth, but Nadal denied his attempt to serve out the set and powered to victory in a one-sided tie-break.
Nadal gains a measure of revenge after his semi-final loss one year ago at Roland Garros — the most recent meeting between the pair. By ending Djokovic’s title defence, Nadal moves within two victories of a record-extending 14th Roland Garros title and 22nd major crown. Had Djokovic advanced, he would have had a golden opportunity to tie Nadal by winning his 21st Grand Slam title.
Nadal is now guaranteed to remain the leader of the Pepperstone ATP Race To Turin after Paris, priming himself for a shot at finishing year-end World No. 1.
“He showed why he’s a great champion,” Djokovic said in his post-match press conference. “Staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did. Congrats to him and his team. No doubt he deserved it.”
🤩 What a set! What a comeback! 🤩
— Roland Garros (@rolandgarros) May 31, 2022
Nadal improved to 29-30 in this ATP Head2Head series by breaking serve seven times on 17 chances, including twice in each of the first three sets. He saved eight of the 12 break points he faced.
The Spaniard has now won consecutive matches of four-plus hours. After defeating Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday after four hours and 20 minutes, he moved past Djokovic in four hours and 11 minutes. Nadal entered the tournament under a cloud of doubt due to his chronic foot injury and played just two clay events prior to Roland Garros after a six-week layoff due to a rib fracture. But he looked as fit as ever as he improved to 15-1 in the Roland Garros quarter-finals.
After two days of rest, Nadal will face Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals after the third-seeded German knocked off Carlos Alcaraz earlier on Tuesday.
Djokovic entered the quarter-final on a nine match win streak, winning 22 straight sets dating back to his ATP Masters 1000 triumph in Rome. He was also on an 11-match win streak at Roland Garros, matching his longest run in Paris (2016-17).
While Nadal and Djokovic are familiar foes — especially at Roland Garros, where Nadal now holds an 8-2 head-to-head edge — their quarter-final is also a match of historic firsts: It is the first time in the Open era that a men’s match has featured two men with at least 20 Grand Slam wins, 1,000 match wins or 300 Grand Slam match wins.
Nadal and Djokovic both put on a show in the opening set of their Roland Garros quarter-final, but Nadal struck the first heavy blows to win it, 6-2. While the scoreline was one-sided, the majority of the rallies were enthralling back-and-forth affairs with both men battling for supremacy in a high-octane chess match from the baseline.
The Spaniard broke serve in a 10-minute opening game to take the early initiative, then saved a pair of break points to hold for 3-1 before blitzing through the rest of the set. Djokovic employed several drop shots to varying success, while Nadal attacked the net nine times, winning four of those points.
Nadal was sharp from the first ball and finished with a 12-6 winners-to-errors count, while Djokovic was a minus-1 by that measure, hitting eight winners and nine errors.
Djokovic battled back from a double break down, winning six of the last seven games in a thrilling 6-4 set.
Just as in the opening set, Nadal began set two with a crucial break of serve in a titanic opening game. After Djokovic survived for more than 13 minutes, Nadal took his seventh break point of the game to wrestle control of the match. Djokovic did not have a game point.
Nadal’s forehand was was at his buggy-whip best, and Djokovic began to press as he lost touch with the Spaniard. The Serbian found himself a double break down at 3-0 when Nadal bunted a winner after chasing down another drop shot.
But Djokovic stepped up the aggression to claw back to 3-3, drawing errors from Nadal for the first time in the match as he began to dictate off his own forehand wing. He won his fifth break point of a seven-deuce game to draw level, then fought off a break point to hold for 4-3 across four deuces. Those two crucial games following the 3-2 changeover lasted nearly 29 minutes.
With Nadal serving at 4-5, Djokovic dialed in with a slew of deep returns and broke for the third time in four return games to draw level after two hours and 18 minutes. The second set alone lasted one hour and 28 minutes.
The opening two sets mirror the start of their 2021 semi-final, when Nadal took a 6-3 opener before Djokovic answered with a 6-3 second. That set the stage for an all-time-classic third set, which Djokovic won in a tie-break. The Serbian’s four-set comeback was the first time since 2014 in this rivalry that the player losing the first set came back to win.
Three sets, three instant breaks for Nadal. And for the second straight set, he claimed an early double-break advantage behind blistering baseline play. This time, it proved to be more than enough as he closed with no trouble, wrapping up the set just after midnight.
The 6-2 set gave the Spaniard a two-sets-to-one lead and dispelled any thoughts of lingering fatigue following his five-set triumph over Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday. After Nadal fought off a break point to hold for 3-1, he secured his second break — his sixth of the match — and never gave Djokovic a chance to tighten the score.
The Serbian, after attacking with such consistency in his second-set comeback, made 16 unforced errors to seven winners in the set. Nadal, who has had a positive ratio in all three sets, hit eight winners and six errors in the third.
Nadal claimed victory by winning the 19th tie-break contested by the pair, improving his record to 10-9 in tie-break sets against the Serbian.
The Spaniard surrendered an early break in the set and trailed 3-5 as Djokovic stepped up to serve for the set. But after not creating a break point in the set, the Spaniard made his breakthrough. It took nine minutes before Nadal converted on his second break chance of the game to stay alive in the set.
Djokovic had saved 14 of 17 break points entering the match, but faced 17 against Nadal alone, saving 10. The Spaniard saved eight of the 12 break points he faced in the quarter-final.
With the momentum firmly on his side, Nadal raced to a 6-1 lead in the tie-break and ultimately closed it out on his fourth match point.
— Roland Garros (@rolandgarros) May 31, 2022
Djokovic briefly stemmed the tide early in the set to hold off a trademark Chatrier charge from Nadal, but could not hold off the final wave of brilliance from his opponent. The Serbian made a fast start to the fourth, in sharp contrast to the previous three sets. For the first time in the match, he held his opening service game. Djokovic was able to pull Nadal around the baseline with regularity in the early stages of the set, and he capitalized on an early break point on the way to a 3-0 lead.
Even as Nadal stayed in rallies with bewildering squash shots, Djokovic held his nerve and pushed his lead to 5-2. But once Nadal clawed the break back, he commanded the close of the match to emerge a serving winner.