At the game of “Where’s Charlie?” “, Rafael Nadal’s uncle, Toni, is probably not the best. Great host of the pre-match between his nephew and the Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime, whom he now accompanies, the one who shaped “Rafa” had announced that he would seek “a neutral zone” to watch the round of 16 between both players. No question for “the uncle” to favor his new foal to the “bull of Manacor” by occupying his “box” in the stands. In time for discretion, Toni Nadal took his place, Sunday, May 29, in the first row of the presidential gallery; and attempted to control his emotions throughout the game.

Because the meeting evoked the roller coaster, and held in suspense the spectators of the central court. After an intense 4:21 battle, Rafael Nadal won against the Canadian, fifteen years his junior, in five sets (3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 ). Boosted, warming the crowd with his harangues, the Majorcan qualified for the quarter-finals, in a meeting that saw him roll on the ground. On Tuesday, the Spanish player who has won the Parisian Grand Slam tournament thirteen times will find his best enemy, Novak Djokovic, for a place in the last four.

Nadal and Auger-Aliassime fought an incessant fight, taking turns gaining the advantage over the other. Abused in the first round, the Mallorcan seemed borrowed. Perhaps a consequence of an evening spent at the Stade de France the day before, and prolonged by circumstances – the Champions League final between Real Madrid, which he supports, and Liverpool having started late, due to overflows outside the stadium.

“I’m going to have to fight”, in quarters

Alongside his tennis at the start of the game, Rafael Nadal recovered, and, in turn, undermined his uncle’s protege. Dominating the second and third rounds, the man with twenty-one Grand Slam titles (a record) found his arsenal of shots, in a Central largely won over to his cause. “The atmosphere was incomparable”, greeted the winner after the match, at the microphone of Alex Corretja. But even mistreated, Félix Auger-Aliassime never gave up and accepted his fate, like so many opponents of “Rafa” in Paris until then.

Rafael Nadal had the opportunities to take off. But he who, since the start of his career, has been lethal when it comes to making breaks (taking the opponent’s service), experienced an unusual loss. The fault, first, of an opponent reciting his tennis. Carried by a solid service until the end, and an incessant aggressiveness, the great hope of Canadian tennis harassed Nadal, pushing him until the fifth set. But as in the two five-round matches he had played so far at Porte d’Auteuil – in 2011 against the American John Isner, and in 2013 against Novak Djokovic – the Majorcan emerged victorious.

“I’m a very different player from three years ago,” Félix Auger-Aliassime warned. So very young, the Canadian had not resisted the stature of the Mallorcan champion, during their first opposition on clay at the Madrid tournament (in 2019). “As a young player, I felt a lot of pressure, to maintain the quality of my serve, to also force the targets. He changed gear, he gained confidence. And so, he took the upper hand naturally that day. FAA learned the lesson. He who before this year had not won a single match at the Porte d’Auteuil tournament did not go far, at 21, from offering himself the scalp of the quasi-owner of the place.

Exhausted, the record holder for the number of Grand Slam titles looked ahead to his quarter-final on Tuesday against Novak Djokovic. “I haven’t had references for several months, so I don’t know where I’m going,” admitted Nadal, who lost in 2021 in the semi-final against the Serb. I will have to fight, but I can’t complain. I’m in the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros, and two and a half weeks ago I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to play. For several years, the Spaniard, current number 5 at the ATP, has suffered from a chronic foot injury, which forced him to end his season in August last year. “I live with this pain every day, there are no surprises, I just try to do my best, to play tennis,” Nadal said before the tournament.

A match on Prime Video or France Télévisions?

It remains to be seen who will broadcast the clash of the ogres of the Grand Slams on Tuesday. Behind the scenes, the battle is raging between Amazon Prime Video (which owns the rights for the evening sessions) and France Télévisions, to ensure that this enticing encounter is broadcast. If the two players have assured, for various reasons, of their preference for a match in the afternoon, the organizers find themselves with a thorny problem to resolve – and the certainty of not satisfying everyone.

At almost 36 years old – he will celebrate them on June 3, the day of a potential semi-final – Rafael Nadal sees the time passing. “Every game I play here, I don’t know if it’s going to be the last game of my career at Roland-Garros,” he breathes, explaining his combative state of mind. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and that’s why I play, keep living this dream. »

At the end of the first round, in the distance, a fanfare took over “The lion died tonight” in the bays of Roland-Garros. Crime of lèse-majesté in a tournament where Rafael Nadal is already frozen. The shirt stained with dirt during part of the meeting, the Spanish champion is still standing, despite more than four hours of combat. Too nervous to see the outcome of the match, Toni Nadal had long since left the presidential stand.

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