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HIGHLIGHTS: Once again, Nadal and Djokovic delivered in terms of drama and shotmaking

“Without a doubt there’s no other place like this one for me; it’s the most important court of my career,” Rafael Nadal said after his 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) win over Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros on Tuesday.

It’s hardly a surprise that Nadal showed his love for Court Philippe Chatrier. This is the stadium where he has won 13 French Opens, and where he could have a chance to win a 14th—and a 22nd Grand Slam title—on Sunday. But there was something about the way Rafa closed out his last two victories there, over Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday and over Djokovic today, that made it seem as if he was channeling all of the best tennis he has played since he first set foot on that court nearly two decades ago.

In both matches, his playing level, his confidence, and his fitness bounced up and down for three or four sets. Then, when he could see the finish line come over the horizon, and see that getting there was within his reach, he played perfect tennis. The nerves and doubts were gone, the errors were replaced by winners, and he began constructing points like the chess master he has always been on this surface. Nadal has not always felt the love from the crowd inside Chatrier; the fans resented him for blocking their king, Roger Federer, from winning there. But tonight those fans were there for him, and the chants of “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” grew louder as he galloped past his opponent in the homestretch.

“The feeling about playing in the most important place and the most special place personally in my tennis career, I feel the support of all the crowd is just something very difficult to describe, no?” Nadal said, while joking that they “probably know I’m not gonna be here [many] more times, no?”

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Rafa’s win may seem inevitable in retrospect. He is the king of clay, so what do you expect? But for much of this match, it looked as if the result would go the other way, and Djokovic would be the one who would ultimately find a way to gain the upper hand. That’s how it went in their semifinal here last year, and for the first two hours, this one unfolded along similar lines. Just as in 2021, Nadal started brilliantly, struck first with his forehand, and won the first set. Just as in 2021, Djokovic dug in during the second set and wore Nadal down with a steady barrage of deep returns and heavy, penetrating ground strokes. By the end of the second set, which he had led 3-0, Rafa was moving slowly between points, playing tentatively during them, and shaking his head in frustration at the Djokovic onslaught.

But this time, unlike last time, Djokovic couldn’t maintain that onslaught for long enough. In the biggest surprise of the night, he lost his rhythm to start the third set, while Nadal found a second wind and went on the offensive again. Still, Rafa’s momentum didn’t last long, and Djokovic took command again, building a 5-2 lead in the fourth. Everyone everywhere settled in for a fitting fifth-set finish.

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“Without a doubt there’s no other place like this one for me; it’s the most important court of my career,” Rafael Nadal said after his 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) win over Novak Djokovic.

“Without a doubt there’s no other place like this one for me; it’s the most important court of my career,” Rafael Nadal said after his 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) win over Novak Djokovic.

Then, just when the fourth seemed lost, a new self-assurance came over Nadal’s game. It started with defense, which helped him hold for 3-5. Then, with Djokovic serving for the set, Nadal hit a drop shot that the Serb didn’t run for. Rafa followed that up with a backhand winner, saved a set point with a backhand pass, rifled a forehand winner to reach break point, and finally broke, to thunderous cheers, with another forehand winner.

That’s how it went for the rest of the match. The more assured Nadal was, the shakier Djokovic became. In the fourth-set tiebreaker, Rafa started with two forehand winners and an excellent forehand approach to go up 3-0. Djokovic followed with a forehand long, a backhand wide, and a drop shot into the net to go down 6-1. Despite losing the next three points, Nadal still finished confidently, with a backhand winner at 6-4.

“He was just able to take his tennis to another level in those, particularly moments at the beginning of all sets, actually, except the fourth,” Djokovic said of Nadal. “He showed why he’s a great champion, you know staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did.”

“I had my chances. You know, I had my chances in the fourth. Served for the set, couple set points.”

This quarterfinal lasted four hours and 12 minutes, one minute longer than last year’s semifinal. This match never reached the heights of that one, but Nadal did in the end. Few, if any, athletes have ever known their way around an arena like Nadal knows his way around Chatrier. Tonight it showed.

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Wimbledon draws unveiled! Serena to face Harmony Tan; favorable openers for Djokovic and Nadal
Wimbledon

Wimbledon draws unveiled! Serena to face Harmony Tan; favorable openers for Djokovic and Nadal

Among the intriguing first-rounders include Nick Kyrgios-Paul Jubb and Sloane Stephens-Zheng Qinwen.