Novak Djokovic renews his 16-year rivalry with Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros on Tuesday with a place in the semi-finals on the line and where victory for the world number one could end the career of the 13-time Roland Garros champion.
Nadal, who turns 36 on Friday, puts his record of 109 wins and just three losses in Paris since his title debut in 2005 on the line against the defending champion.
The Spaniard was taken down in five sets for only the third time in the tournament by 21-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round.
Immediately after that victory, Nadal admitted that not only this year’s French Open was on the line, but possibly his whole future as a player.
“I know my situation and I accept it,” said Nadal, who arrived in Paris not knowing if he would be able to participate after suffering a recurrence of a chronic foot injury that plagued him during the most of his career.
“I just appreciate the fact that I’m here for another year. And to be honest, every game I play here, I don’t know if it will be my last at Roland Garros.
Overall, Djokovic has led Nadal 30-28 since their first career encounter at the 2006 French Open.
Nadal has a 19-8 advantage on clay and has won seven of the duo’s nine meetings in Paris.
Djokovic, however, emerged victorious in the 2021 Roland Garros semi-finals en route to a second title.
This defeat had a physical impact on Nadal who then skipped Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open.
With Djokovic expelled from Melbourne on the eve of the Australian Open, Nadal seized the opportunity to win a record 21st Grand Slam title, breaking a tie with Djokovic and Roger Federer.
The two men are playing in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros for the 16th time.
Djokovic easily reached the last eight. He has won 22 sets in a row, a streak dating back to his triumph at the Italian Open in Rome.
“I’m glad I didn’t spend too much time on the court until the quarter-finals, knowing that playing against Nadal at Roland Garros is always a physical battle,” Djokovic said.
To add an extra twist, a battle of wills over the lineup Nadal lost on Monday when organizers selected the quarter-final for the night session under the lights of Court Philippe Chatrier.
“I don’t like playing on clay at night because the humidity is higher, the ball is slower and there can be very difficult conditions, especially when it’s cold,” Nadal said.
Djokovic hinted that he would prefer to face Nadal as late as possible.
“All I will say is Rafa and I would make different demands,” he said.
Nadal’s coach Carlos Moya says the Spaniard’s opinion should have carried weight.
“I wouldn’t say disrespect, but here at Roland Garros Rafa has credit,” Moya told RMC Sport.
“He has won the tournament 13 times, and if he has a request, you should listen to him. He is part of the history of Roland Garros.
“But in the end, it’s a matter of business and we understand that.”
Carlos Alcaraz, who takes on Alexander Zverev, said it would have been “unfair” if he had been ordered to play after 9pm for the third time.
Alcaraz, 19, is the youngest man to make the last quarter in Paris since Djokovic in 2006.
He owns a 2022 clay-court record of 20 wins to just one loss. For the year, he’s 32-3.
The sixth seed had to save a match point to defeat compatriot Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the second round, but was unhindered by expectations.
Alcaraz is taking on third-seeded Zverev after beating the German in the Madrid Masters final where he also knocked out Nadal and Djokovic.
Zverev added spice to the encounter by claiming Alcaraz are favored by the organizers who have so far given the teenager three out of four matches on Chatrier.
The Olympic champion described the game on Chatrier as “completely different” compared to other courts. “It’s like playing on another continent.”
With Djokovic, Nadal, Zverev and Alcaraz battling at the top of the table, the bottom section was wide open by the fourth-round exits of second-placed Daniil Medvedev and number four Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 2021 runner-up.
As a result, one of Holger Rune, Casper Ruud, Andrey Rublev or Marin Cilic will make Sunday’s final.