“I’m not surprised at all,” Djokovic said after the match. “It’s not the first time that he, you know, is able to a few days after he’s injured and barely walking to come out 100 percent physically fit. You know, he’s done it many times in his career, so I’m not surprised.”
Last year, in another stirring night match, Djokovic defeated Nadal in four sets on his way to winning the title. Nadal faded in the final set due to Djokovic’s staying power but also to the foot condition — Müller-Weiss syndrome — that would keep him from playing for most of what remained of the 2021 season.
But in this French Open rematch, Nadal was strong at the start and at the finish in a grueling duel with an average rally length well over five strokes. Nadal finished with 57 winners to 43 unforced errors and did a much better job than Djokovic of protecting his second serve: winning 60 percent of the points on it while Djokovic won just 42 percent on his.
Still, Djokovic served for the fourth set at 5-3 and was twice only one point away from forcing a decisive fifth. But on the first set point, Djokovic lost an extended rally by hitting a backhand into the net. On the second, he decided to be more aggressive but his approach shot was more hopeful than good and Nadal ran to his right and smacked a backhand passing shot winner that Djokovic was never close to reaching.
It was soon 5-5 in the fourth set and Nadal took quick control of the ensuing tiebreaker, just as he had taken quick command of the match. He jumped out to a 6-1 lead in the tiebreaker and then held on and closed out the victory on his fourth match point with another backhand winner, turning to his team and raising both his arms.
“Congratulations to Nadal, he was the best player in the important moments,” Djokovic said. “I managed to win the second set and thought I was back in the game, but then he had another two or three fantastic games again at the beginning of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level.”
Djokovic still leads their overall series 30-29 — a statistic that reflects the transcendence of their rivalry — but Nadal has now extended his lead over Djokovic in French Open matches to 8-2 and will face Alexander Zverev, a German seeded third, on Friday for a place in the men’s singles final.
Nadal is the only man left in the tournament who has won the French Open, and though Tuesday night’s performance might have come as a surprise to Nadal and those who saw him hobbling in Rome, it would surely come as no surprise to anyone if Nadal took the confidence and momentum that goes with defeating Djokovic and rode it to a 14th title at Roland Garros.