Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic in French Open quarterfinals

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In a match that Rafael Nadal had warned might be his last at the French Open, he dispatched longtime rival Novak Djokovic to reach the semifinals, two match wins from a record-extending 14th Roland Garros title.

Nadal ousted the top-ranked Serb 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) in a night match that ended after 1 a.m. in Paris. On his 36th birthday on Friday, he gets No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev, who upset Nadal’s 19-year-old countryman Carlos Alcaraz 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7) earlier Tuesday.

The Nadal-Zverev winner will likely be the favorite in Sunday’s final given the top two seeds in the other half of the draw lost in the round of 16.

“To win against Novak, there is only one way,” said Nadal, who lost to Djokovic in the 2021 French Open semifinals. “It’s to play at your best since the first point ’til the last, no? Tonight has been one of these magic nights for me. Unexpected level.”

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After Alcaraz was eliminated, it became clear that the Nadal-Djokovic winner would become the title favorite. Nadal narrowed the margin in their rivalry — the most prolific in men’s tennis in the Open Era — to 30-29 in favor of Djokovic.

Nadal, though he won the Australian Open in January in Djokovic’s absence, came into this tournament as an underdog behind Djokovic and Alcaraz.

A foot injury that first bothered him in 2005 — when he won his first French Open title at age 19 — has become an increasing problem and impacted his lead-up to Roland Garros. He failed to win a clay-court tournament all season before coming to Paris for the first time in his career (not counting COVID-impacted 2020).

“I think probably they know that I not gonna be here for a lot of more times,” Nadal said of the fans, many of whom were wrapped in blankets by the end of Tuesday night’s match. “I am putting everything that I have to try to play this tournament with the best conditions possible, no? I don’t know what can happen after, honestly, but here I think I gonna be fine.

“I have what I have there in the foot, so if we are not able to find an improvement or a small solution on that, then it’s becoming super difficult for me, no? So that’s it.”

Nadal needed five sets, four hours and 21 minutes to win his previous match Sunday, a fourth-rounder against Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime. Meanwhile, Djokovic marched into Tuesday’s match under the lights — adverse conditions for Nadal compared to the day — having not dropped a set in his first four matches.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Djokovic said of Nadal’s ability to bounce-back physically. “It’s not the first time that he is able to few days after he’s injured and barely walking to come out 100% physically fit.”

Now Nadal bids to extend his record with a 22nd major singles title. Djokovic is tied with Roger Federer at 20. If Nadal lifts another Coupe des Mousquetaires on Sunday, then the 35-year-old Djokovic, who after last year’s Wimbledon was tied with Nadal and Federer, cannot take the lead until 2023 at the earliest.

“He was a better player I think in important moments,” Djokovic said. “He showed why he’s a great champion, staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did. Congrats to him and his team. No doubt he deserved it.”

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