Rafael Nadal charged the net during the first point of the fourth-set tiebreaker, those familiar biceps rippling through his lime green shirt.
Up 2-1 in sets in the French Open quarterfinal match against Novak Djokovic, he had already staved off a couple of set points in the fourth. Extending this match to a fifth set could have exhausted his creaky 6′ 1″ frame. So Nadal refused to back away. He practically dared Djokovic to blast something by him in the tiebreaker, betting that the Serbian player had nothing left.
Djokovic missed wide. Later, he misfired on a cross-court attempt. He left a drop-shot short. All tiebreaker long, Nadal charged and slid across the red clay of Roland-Garros as he infiltrated the mind of one of the sport’s most cerebral players. The Spaniard has already won the French Open an incredible 13 times—and seems determined to clinch it again.
Sometime after 1 a.m. on Wednesday in Paris, Nadal finished off Djokovic 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4). “I lost to a better player today,” Djokovic said after the match.
Nadal’s victory sets up a semifinal showdown on Friday with No. 3 Alexander Zverev, of Germany, who ousted Nadal’s compatriot, ascendant teenager Carlos Alcaraz, in a tough four-set match.
After he suffered a rib injury at the Indian Wells tournament in March, Nadal’s French Open status was uncertain. Just last month, Nadal revealed that a nagging foot issue leaves him in pain “every single day.” And yet, at 35, he knocked off the number one player in the world, in their 59th encounter, leaving Djokovic just one win ahead in their epic rivalry at 30-29.
With two days off before Friday’s semi, Nadal is two wins away from his 14th French title, a record, and his 22nd major championship, also a record. (Djokovic and Roger Federer each have 20.)
Read More: Naomi Osaka—”It’s O.K. Not to Be O.K.”
Owing to his COVID-19 vaccination status, Djokovic was not a contender at the Australian Open in January, leaving Nadal to win that tournament, which he did by rallying from a two-set deficit against Daniil Medvedev. A French Open title would leave Nadal in contention for an epic Grand Slam this summer. No men’s player has won all four major events since Rod Laver did in 1969. Djokovic came close a year ago, winning the first three majors before falling to Medvedev in the U.S. Open final.
This could be Nadal’s last French Open—and if it is, he’ll go out a winner, even if he drops one of these next two matches at Roland-Garros. But if Nadal’s injuries can somehow remain at a tolerable threshold, this win over Djokovic proves he has great tennis left in him. He could get to 25 major titles and beyond.
While the legends are still at it, an alluring new generation of tennis talent is also proving its worth. Take Alcaraz. Given that he’s a Spanish clay-court maestro, the comparisons with Nadal are irresistible. Alcaraz, 19, cracked the top 10 on the same day Nadal did 17 years earlier. Nadal won the 2005 French Open days after turning 19. Alcarez fell short of that pinnacle this year, but whipped the Roland-Garros crowd into a frenzy, pushing Zverev to a fourth-set tiebreaker.
Among the women, Coco Gauff, 18, is easy to cheer. In beating fellow American and 2017 U.S. Open champ Sloane Stephens 7-5, 6-2 in the quarters, Gauff reached her first-ever Grand Slam semi.
She first charmed the world in 2019, when, as a mere 15-year-old, she defeated idol Venus Williams in a magical run to the fourth round at Wimbledon. Since then, she’s stayed diligent, gaining valuable experience before arriving at this moment.
“I feel like, last year, I was looking at the finish line,” Gauff said after her victory. “Now, I’m not looking at anything but the ball in front of me.”
Gauff faces an unseeded player, Italy’s Martina Trevisan, in Thursday’s semifinals. The world no. 1, Iga Swiatek of Poland, awaits as a potential opponent in the finals. Swiatek has won 32 straight matches and is all of 21.
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