PARIS — Eventually Rafael Nadal will retire, just like he has told us he will. But it won’t be today — or even yesterday — when this punch-for-punch quarterfinal started against Novak Djokovic.
The two grizzled heavyweights of the sport have traded blows since they first met on this patch of clay back in 2006. Still, in their 59th meeting, the margins separating these two are tiny: the width of a line, the slightest mishit, the momentary misjudgment of an unpredictable bounce.
It was Nadal who just came through this bout in 4 hours, 11 minutes. There was no knockout blow, just a series of jabs eventually wearing down the opponent as the final bell rang at 1:15 a.m. Wednesday at Roland Garros, the score 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4).
“I think they are starting too late, to be honest … That’s the world we are living in,” Djokovic said. “Broadcasters say it’s going to be night match, day match. They give the money. They decide.”
As sporting rivalries go, add this up there with the best of them; they are one of the very few surefire things in tennis. Enjoy them while you can. Both with bodies slowly starting to backfire and undermine them. Tennis has lived off rivalries like Borg-McEnroe or Evert-Navratilova. This has been tennis’ Ali-Frazier.
One day, we’re going to miss them.
“The crowd knows I won’t be here many more times,” Nadal said. “The crowd is something difficult to describe; I can’t thank everyone enough here in Paris. It was an unforgettable night.”
WHAT. A. MATCH.
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All week the two worked in contrast, just like great rivals: Djokovic wanting to play at night, Nadal during the day; Nadal playing down expectations, Djokovic talking up his chances. And from the moment the two walked out, it had that big-event feel. Nadal’s walk on to the court was cheered to the rafters, while Djokovic entered to a mixture of boos and cheers — and looking to gate-crash the party on Nadal’s clay.
Nadal started this match when the sky still had some color left, storming through the first set 6-2. But the night drew in, and the starless sky blanketed the stadium just as Djokovic started winning, finding his rhythm to take the second set 6-4. Nadal took a break. Minutes later, he jogged back on, the trumpet in the crowd heralding the king’s return. Back on his throne, Nadal took the third set 6-2.
“I know I could have played better,” Djokovic said. “I’m proud of fighting and staying ’til the last shot. You know, over four hours’ battle, I have to accept this defeat.”
The temperature plummeted. The audience wrapped themselves in blankets, unwilling to leave their seats. They waited for a spark or for Djokovic’s expressionless mask to slip — and it did in the second game of the fourth, when he clubbed the net in frustration after he was unable to tame a Nadal forehand.
The crowd responded by booing Djokovic to the skies. But the louder the boos, the harder the Djokovic forehand, the more precise the serve. Two minutes later, he broke Nadal as the umpire overturned a call at the key moment — another shift in momentum, lines struck through, chapters rewritten, the rivalry taking a new course.
That’s the thing about Djokovic-Nadal: Even on the rare occasions one has won a set 6-0, it doesn’t feel like it. There’s no natural momentum to these matches, no dominant spell leading to one easing home, but more a test of who blinks first, with their skill sets wonderfully matched. The games are split between points so outrageously constructed that you become accustomed to their brilliance; it must be tennis’ equivalent of being a docent at the Louvre.
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“Still a super classic match and in a big scenario,” Nadal said. “So yeah, between Novak, Roger [Federer], myself, we have an amazing story together facing each other in the most important matches for such a long time. So that makes the things more special and more emotional.”
By the time Nadal hit his match-winning backhand — after Djokovic had saved three match points in the fourth-set tiebreak — the stadium was still full.
The metro had long closed, but no one dared move until Nadal took four steps into the middle of the court and raised his arms to the sky, before falling to clasp his knees. His body had listened to him and granted another shot at clay-court immortality. But on this morning — during a match spread over two days, even from May to June in France — another chapter in this amazing rivalry has been added. And while the end is near, the final words thankfully haven’t been written just yet.
“I put everything into this tournament to allow me to play,” Nadal said. “I don’t know what will happen afterwards.”