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Ricky’s pick for the French Open quarterfinals: Djokovic vs. Nadal

Novak Djokovic (L) of Serbia shakes hands with Rafael Nadal (R) of Spain after their semi final match at the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris, France, 11 June 2021. Djokovic won in four sets. EPA-EFE/YOAN VALAT

By Ricky Dimon

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will be squaring off at Roland Garros on Tuesday, and once again it won’t be for the title.

Two years ago they did face each other in the final, but last year they waged a semifinal battle. This time around the luck–or lack thereof–of the draw has paired up the two all-time greats in the quarters.

Overall this marks their 59th career encounter, with Djokovic leading the head-to-head series 30-28. They have met nine times at the French Open and Nadal has won seven, although their last four showdowns have been split at two victories apiece. The Spaniard dominated the 2020 championship match 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 before Djokovic prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-4 last spring en route to his second title on the terre battue of Paris.

One critical factor regarding Tuesday’s tilt is that it has been scheduled for the night session–a phenomenon new to Roland Garros this year. Nadal had that same assignment for his second-round date with Corentin Moutet and did not like it (despite winning in easy straight sets). Conditions are heavier and slower when the sun goes down, making it more difficult for the 13-time champion to hit through the court with his heavy topspin forehand.

That’s not to say this is an entirely lost cause for Nadal. He has won 109 matches at Roland Garros (compared to only three losses) and obviously he has experienced plenty of differing conditions. Most notably, the 2020 French Open was played in the fall — which was not ideal for Nadal — because of the Covid-19 pandemic and he still captured the title without dropping a single set the entire fortnight. That dominant run was capped off by a straight-set beatdown of Djokovic.

On the downside for the world No. 5, he clearly peaked earlier this season and Djokovic is peaking right now. While the Serb was sidelined due to being unvaccinated, Nadal lifted the Australian Open trophy for the second time and won his first 20 matches of 2022. After that, rib and foot injuries halted his progress. Meanwhile, Djokovic raised his level with a semifinal showing in Madrid (lost to Carlos Alcaraz in a third-set tiebreaker) and a title in Rome.

Unsurprisingly, the world No. 1 was absolutely dominant en route to the quarterfinals whereas Nadal almost crashed out in round four. On Sunday the fifth seed went five sets with Felix Auger-Aliassime, surviving 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 after four hours and 21 minutes.

His reward is a shot at the top seed in hopes of avenging last year’s defeat.

“(It’s) gonna be a big challenge for me,” Nadal assured. “Of course he [has] won I think last nine matches in a row, winning in Rome and now winning here in straight sets every match. Probably he will be confident.

“I know how my situation (is) and I accept it. I (am) gonna fight for it. That’s it. I can’t complain much. I am in (the) quarterfinals of Roland Garros. Two weeks and a half ago, even if I had positive hopes after Rome, I [didn’t even] know if I would be able to be here.”

The 21-time Grand Slam champion is not only here but also playing well–probably better than expected given his recent injury woes. Getting battle-tested by Auger-Aliassime may help him early in Tuesday’s match, too, as Djokovic has been in cruise control without facing any tense moments.

In the end, however, Djokovic should have the edge. A four-hour and 21-minute struggle with Auger-Aliassime won’t help Nadal as what will surely be a physical fight against Djokovic drags on. And although the conditions may not be a make-or-break factor, they also won’t help Nadal. Expect something similar to last season’s memorable semi, with Djokovic taking control late to get the best of a high-quality contest.

Pick: Djokovic in 4

Editor’s Note: Lovey is choosing RAFA in 4. Maybe 3.