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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Wednesday June 1, 2022

 
Rafael Nadal

The King of Clay pushed past Djokovic in a four-plus hour battle in Paris to reach his 15th Roland-Garros semifinal.

Photo Source: Getty

Rafael Nadal entered Paris covered by an injury cloud, but gradually the King of Clay has stepped into the light.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, after outlasting Novak Djokovic in the pair’s 59th meeting, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4), the 13-time champion wore a satisfied smile as he spoke to a crowd that stayed riveted throughout his four hour and 12-minute triumph against his greatest rival.

Tennis Express

Since limping off the court in Rome two weeks ago, Nadal has been behind Djokovic on the shortlist of favorites to win Roland-Garros this year. But on a day that saw sixth-seeded Carlos Alcaraz fall to Alexander Zverev, his victory over the World No.1 meant that he is now the highest-seeded player remaining in the draw.

It feels like old times for the Spaniard, who improved to 110-3 lifetime on the terre battue of Paris with a determined, pitch-perfect effort against the defending champion. In a back-and-forth battle it was Nadal who remained intrepid and unyielding. He refused to let his level drop and was there to pounce every time Djokovic gave him the opportunity.

Nadal v Djokovic:

Djokovic leads 30-29
Nadal leads at Roland-Garros 8-2

Though the pair traded blows, it was Djokovic who couldn’t keep punching when he needed it most as he squandered the momentum of a brilliantly played second set and let a 5-2 lead slip in the fourth set when a deciding fifth set looked likely.

“Congratulations to Nadal,” Djokovic said. “He was a better player I think in important moments. Started very well. You know, I didn't start so great, 6-2, 3-Love, double break down. I was gaining momentum as I was coming back in the second set, managed to win the second set, and I thought, okay, you know, I'm back in the game.


“But then he had another two, three fantastic games at the beginning of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level…”

Nadal, who will face Germany’s Zverev in the semifinals on Friday, played with intent from start to finish. He cracked 57 winners against 43 unforced errors, while Djokovic it 48 winners against 53 unforced.

He won 60 percent of his second serve points while Djokovic only won 42 percent of his own.

Most important he weathered the hot strikes from Djokovic in the second set and early in the fourth and continued to take the play to the Serb whenever he could. The legendary fighter kept punching, and it served him well as he rallied from 5-2 to down in the fourth set to lock down a dominant tiebreaker, converting his fourth match point as the crowd went wild.

“The crowd have been amazing since the beginning of the tournament,” he said. “I don't know. I think probably they know that I not gonna be here for a lot of more times.

“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? So just can't thank enough everyone here in Paris for making me feel that way, no?”

Nadal’s physicality was the most impressive – and surprising – element of his triumph. Those who witnessed him struggle with the left foot injury that ended his 2021 season and smashed his hopes at Rome, where he lost to Denis Shapovalov in the round of 16 two weeks ago, know how far he has come.

After losing in Rome, Nadal said he planned to have his doctor with him in Paris, and he believed it would help him manage his pain. He spoke about it again after his win.

“I told you that in Rome that I gonna have my doctor here with me, that having the doctor here you can do things that helps, no?” he told reporters on Wednesday morning. “So it's not the moment to talk about that. I said that we are gonna talk about that after the tournament when my tournament finish.

“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.”

There was palpable joy emitted from Nadal after his victory, but he assured reporters that he possesses the ability to refocus for Friday’s semifinal. The Spaniard knows two things at the moment: First, he will not have many more opportunities to win Roland-Garros. Second, his work in Paris is far from done.

“In the end it has been a very emotional night for me,” he said. “I still playing for nights like today. But is just a quarterfinals match, no?

"So I didn't win anything. So I just give myself a chance to be back on court in two days, play another semifinals here in Roland Garros means a lot to me.”

 

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