They entered the court in May, they left it in June. And at the end, as often at Roland-Garros, it was Rafael Nadal who raised his arms to the sky. At the end of a breathtaking game, the Spanish player beat, on the night of Tuesday May 31 to Wednesday June 1, his rival Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals of the Parisian tournament (6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 [7-4]). Possible last dance between two tennis giants, their 59th confrontation on the circuit lasted until the heart of the night – the evening session ending after 4:12 of play.

“To be honest, every game I play, I don’t know if it will be my last here, at Roland-Garros, and in my career,” Rafael Nadal warned before the game. The Majorcan started the game as if he wanted to go into orbit. Forget the inevitable foot injury that has made him “live with pain” on a daily basis for years and this body with nearly thirty-six springs. Even if he abhors evening sessions, the player still wants to experience Parisian evenings. In front of his entire clan, a sign that they too feel the finish line getting closer, the Spaniard pushed back the inexorable.

An old couple who know each other by heart, Nadal and Djokovic still manage to surprise each other, after 58 meetings around the world. In this unparalleled rivalry, the truth of one day is not that of the next day. We thought Nadal was tired from his long clash with the Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime in the previous round? He attacks without sparing himself, seeming to seek the entry knockout. Facing Novak Djokovic, one of the few to have found the key to defeating him on his favorite surface, Rafael Nadal knows that any imprecision, any hesitation will be exploited at will. So, finding his shots of yesteryear, with formidable depth and returning inexorably, the Spanish player took control of the exchanges. In 2020, this strategy paid off, and the Majorcan corrected his rival in the final of the Paris tournament. In 2021, it was not enough: despite a pocketed first set, Nadal had ceded his crown to Djokovic.

An audience in unison behind “Rafa”

Will this 59th summit clash be the last? He had the smell of it. The Parisian evening crowd was not mistaken, keeping the position in the stands. If Nadal has not always been spared over the years by the public at Roland-Garros, who preferred the aesthetics of Roger Federer to him or simply an outsider, time does its job. And at a time when the Majorcan slips at press conference length that it could be his last dance at Roland-Garros, Paris prefers vertigo to silence. And pushed the “king of clay” to extend his reign until the end of the night.

Once again reduced to the role of the other, the opponent of the hero, the preventer from celebrating in circles, Novak Djokovic did not disassemble. The title holder ended up flourishing in this unloved role, he who suffered so much to collect only the crumbs of love and recognition left by Federer and Nadal.

Revanchard, after a setback entry against an opponent who had regained his precision as a clay court surveyor, the world number one did not give up. “I didn’t start well, but coming back to one run all over, I thought I was back,” the Serb said after the game. In turn, after having started the second set badly, Djokovic took control of a part all in setback, where the two dancers were never in rhythm. Hampered in his quest for greatness at the Australian Open by the country’s health rules – and his choice not to be vaccinated against Covid-19 – the Serb did not intend to give up his title without a fight.

“Come on Rafa, the most opinionated is you,” shouted a spectator at the start of the third set. Reference to the quote from Roland Garros engraved since this year on the frontispiece of the temple of tennis that is the Philippe-Chatrier court, “Victory belongs to the most obstinate”. In this matter, the “bull of Manacor” would even be almost obstinate.

Anchored in his certainties and this clay court that has become his kingdom, Rafael Nadal lives in the moment. If by chance he won a fourteenth Porte d’Auteuil title on Sunday, the Spaniard could engrave “No tomorrow” on the ocher of the center court, as his trajectory is “costs that costs”. “I said [at the tournament in] Rome that I was going to have my doctor with me here. And that having my doctor here allows me to do things that relieve me,” whispered the man with twenty-one Grand Slam trophies, promising to elaborate “when [his] tournament is over”.

“I don’t know what will happen next”

Handicapped for years by necrosis of the scaphoid bone – Muller-Weiss syndrome – in his left foot, which leaves him little respite, Nadal does not hide that the treatments he receives could accelerate his end of career. “I’m giving everything I have to try to play this tournament in the best possible conditions. I don’t know what can happen next, he sums up. But here, I think it will be fine. »

For his part, Novak Djokovic was “not at all surprised” by the umpteenth revival of his rival. “It’s not the first time he’s shown himself to be 100% able to come back, and physically ready, days after being injured and barely able to walk,” the world number one said. He’s done it many times in his career. »

On the night of Tuesday to Wednesday, the Serb had the opportunity to equalize in two sets everywhere, but failed to materialize. Conversely, after a decisive one-sided game, his Spanish opponent won the match without trembling.

“He managed to play his best tennis at key moments, he deserves this win, without a doubt,” Djokovic acknowledged. If in their mano to mano, the world number one still leads, 30 victories to 29, it is not in his garden of Roland-Garros that he will catch up with his rival in the number of Grand Slam tournaments won. Two steps from a new coronation, and after his demonstration in the quarters, Rafael Nadal will be the favorite for the semi-final against the German Alexander Zverev (world number three), Friday, and a possible final.

“It was a very intense night. It is for these moments that I still play,” smiled the winner. If the meeting had the smell of the final, because of the “great history in common” linking Nadal and Djokovic, the one who will celebrate his 36th birthday on Friday, the day of the semi-final, does not believe he has arrived. “It’s only a quarter-final, I haven’t won anything”, insists Nadal, for whom “the main objective is to maintain the level at which I played today”.

There is a reassuring je-ne-sais-quoi to hear Rafael Nadal’s groans pacing the exchanges. At Roland-Garros, where they have rocked the public since 2005, they have the reassuring scent of a madeleine. The day the Majorcan puts his racket away, his cries will haunt the center court, memories of his glory years. If that day is getting closer, the Mallorcan hinting that this year could sound the death knell for his passage at Porte d’Auteuil, Nadal has once again postponed the deadline. “I just gave myself the opportunity to come back to this court in two days,” savored the player, who did not skimp on his “merci, merci, merci” (in French in the text) to the public at the end of the game.