PARIS — By the end of only the third five-setter Rafael Nadal has played in 112 career matches at Roland Garros, as the sun and temperature descended and the chants of “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” filled the evening air, the man known as the King of Clay showed precisely what this meant to him.
With every sprint-slide-and-stretch to reach a seemingly unreachable shot off the yellow racket of his opponent, Felix Auger-Aliassime; with every right-to-a-corner winner; with every well-struck volley, Nadal would hop or throw an uppercut or scream “Vamos!” — and, often, all of the above.
Nadal got through his first serious test of this French Open by edging No. 9 seed Auger-Aliassime 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 across nearly 4 1/2 hours of even, entertaining tennis in the fourth round Sunday at Court Philippe Chatrier.
“Being honest, every match that I play here, I don’t know if it’s going to be my last match here in Roland Garros. … That’s my situation now,” said Nadal, who turns 36 on Friday. “That’s why I am just trying to enjoy as much as possible.”
And the reward for coming through this one? A tantalizing matchup against rival Novak Djokovic in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.
Nadal improved to 3-0 in five-set matches at the clay-court tournament he has dominated the way no one ever has dominated any Grand Slam event. Overall he is 109-3 here, and two of those defeats came against Djokovic, including in last year’s semifinals in their most recent showdown.
The significance of the rivalry: Tuesday’s meeting will be their 59th, more than any other two men have played each other in the sport’s professional era. Djokovic leads 30-28, although Nadal has a 7-2 advantage at the French Open.
“We have a lot of history together,” said Nadal, who attended the Champions League final Saturday night won by his favorite club, Real Madrid, and didn’t get back to his room until after midnight.
Looking at the larger picture, the formerly No. 1-ranked Nadal’s record 13 championships at Roland Garros are part of his haul of 21 Grand Slam trophies, a record for men. The currently No. 1-ranked Djokovic, twice the title winner at the French Open, is just one behind Nadal in the total Slam count, tied with Roger Federer at 20.
Djokovic beat 15th-seeded Diego Schwartzman 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 earlier Sunday and has won all 12 sets he’s played in the tournament.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Djokovic said about playing Nadal, “and probably the biggest one that you can have here in Roland Garros. I’m ready for it.”
The other quarterfinal in their half of the men’s bracket is between No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev, the 2020 U.S. Open runner-up, and No. 6 Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old from Spain who leads the tour with four titles this year. Zverev beat 131st-ranked qualifier Bernabe Zapata Miralles 7-6 (11), 7-5, 6-3, and Alcaraz displayed a back-to-the-net, between-the-legs lob while wrapping up the day’s schedule with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 victory over No. 21 Karen Khachanov.
Two women’s quarterfinals were set, too: 18-year-old Coco Gauff against 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in an all-American matchup, and 2021 U.S. Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez of Canada against 59th-ranked Martina Trevisan of Italy.
The remaining fourth-round matches are Monday.
Might be tough for any of them to live up to what Nadal and Auger-Aliassime produced as the temperature dipped below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 Celsius) and a 10 mph (15 kph) wind made it feel even chillier as 9 p.m. approached during the denouement.
Wrapped in souvenir orange French Open towels and blankets of various hues, spectators appreciated every last drop of drama, singing both players’ first names and rising to their feet to applaud the many spectacular exchanges. One member of the audience, however, did not stick around for the fifth set: Toni Nadal, who is Rafael’s uncle and coached him to 16 of his Grand Slam titles but now is helping coach Auger-Aliassime. Uncle Toni, as he’s known to many, stayed away from both players’ guest boxes — how could he choose a side? — and instead sat in the front row right behind one of the baselines, applauding both men’s winners and avoiding showing any delight derived from anyone’s miscues, until departing at the outset of the deciding set.
He missed quite a finish.
Nadal used increasingly aggressive tactics, moving forward when possible and pouncing on any short ball from his foe. Returning while up 4-3, Nadal snapped his left wrist for a forehand passing winner that left him yelling and punching the air — and left Auger-Aliassime, a semifinalist at the 2021 U.S. Open but 0-2 for his career at the French Open until this year, hanging his head.
That gave Nadal two break points, and he converted the second with a backhand winner. Soon enough, it all was over.
“He raised his level when he needed to,” Auger-Aliassime said.
Nadal hadn’t dropped a set in the tournament until facing Auger-Aliassime, a 21-year-old from Canada equipped with a big serve and forehand.
“I suffered,” Nadal said.
Since starting the season with a 20-0 record, including an Australian Open title in January when Djokovic was not allowed to participate because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19, Nadal has dealt with a rib injury and a recurrence of the chronic pain in his left foot that has troubled him for years. He has said repeatedly in Paris that he had no idea how well he’d be able to play.
If he was hurting Sunday was impossible to know — and, more to the point, impossible to tell. His movement was unhindered, his relentlessness intact.
He will have time to recover and get ready himself to take on Djokovic, who spent roughly half as much time on court Sunday.
“These are special matches,” Nadal said. “I don’t know if I’ll have what it takes to beat someone like Novak, but I’m going to try.”