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Nadal outlasts Djokovic in French Open thriller—and it was only the quarterfinals!

Rafael Nadal celebrates his quarterfinal victory over Novak Djokovic.

By Ricky Dimon

That was only a quarterfinal?!?!

If Rafael Nadal feels like he already deserves the French Open title, you couldn’t blame him. Having already been pushed to five sets by Felix Auger-Aliassime in a high-quality fourth-round encounter, Nadal took down world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals on Tuesday night. The 35-year-old came back from a 5-2 deficit in the fourth set to defeat Djokovic 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4) after four hours 12 minutes.

Of course, no matter how Herculean the effort Nadal would never be one to feel worthy of a title two rounds too soon. Instead, he will be focused on the next task — which is a semifinal showdown against Alexander Zverev on Friday.

“In the end it has been a very emotional night for me,” the Spaniard said during his post-match press conference. “I (am) still playing for nights like today. But (it) is just a quarterfinal match, so I didn’t win anything. I just give myself a chance to be back on court in two days; (to) play another semi-final here in Roland Garros means a lot to me.

“If I am not playing good or if I am losing in that semifinal match, (it’s) not gonna be because I’m not gonna be focused on that semi-final match. I have experience [with] that. I am not the kind of guy and player that emotionally goes high and low. I am very stable, I think, emotionally. I know how things works. (It) is the moment to enjoy today because have been a beautiful night for me, without a doubt; very emotional one. But tomorrow (I’m) gonna start thinking about things that I need to do to be ready for that semifinal.”

Still, Tuesday’s contest won’t soon be forgotten — no matter the round in which it was played.

Although no fifth set was required, the 59th meeting between Nadal and Djokovic certainly lasted long enough to deliver a whole host of momentum swings. After the 13-time champion dominated set one, he seized a 3-0, double-break lead in the second. Djokovic stormed back to level the match only to see Nadal win the third just as easily as he had taken the first. In the fourth, Djokovic surged ahead 5-2 but failed to serve it out at 5-3. Nadal eventually forced a tiebreaker, missed three match points from 6-1 to 6-4, and finally closed it out with a scorching backhand down-the-line winner.

That was the world No. 5’s 57th winner of the night, giving him 14 more winners than errors–a remarkable ratio on clay against an opponent of Djokovic’s defensive caliber. Djokovic managed to fire 48 winners past Nadal, but it wasn’t enough. On this day, Nadal was simply too good. The King of Clay served at 71 percent, won 23 of 30 net points, and converted seven of 17 break points.

“I gave my best,” Djokovic commented. “I know I could have played better, (but) I’m proud of fighting and staying till the last shot…. I lost to a better player today. (I) had my chances; didn’t use them. That’s it. Over four hours battle and I have to accept this defeat.

“I had my chances in the fourth; served for the set (and had a) couple set points. Yeah, just one or two shots could have taken me into a fifth. Then it’s really anybody’s match. But he showed why he’s a great champion–you know, staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did. Congrats to him and his team. No doubt he deserved it.”

“It’s always special to play against each other,” Nadal concluded. “Tonight [was] just a quarterfinal match, not the final. So that’s different. But still a super classic match.”

But still a match that leaves Nadal needing to win two more if wants to lift La Coupe des Mousquetaires for a 14th time.

Ricky contributes to 10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @Dimonator.