As spectators sat wrapped in blankets on a cold Tuesday night in Paris, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic unleased one shot after another in their cat-and-mouse tussle of one-upmanship.
It ebbed, flowed, swung one way, swayed the other, peaked, plateaued, and peaked again across a span of four long hours before Nadal came out a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4) quarter-final winner over Djokovic at the 2022 French Open.
Battle No 59 between these two indomitable forces was as momentum-shifting as the last time they crossed paths. Then, Djokovic beat Nadal for just the second time at Roland Garros, in the semi-final, rolling on to win the title. Now, Nadal ensured lightning did not strike two years on the trot, bolstering his own chances of claiming French Open No 14 and Grand Slam No 22.
Next up for Nadal is Alexander Zverev, who swept past the sizzling Carlos Alcaraz. But the Spaniard could care less about his semi-final opponent, for if his age-, skill- and fitness-defying outing against the world No 1 is anything to go by, it'll take a special show to dislodge the man from his living room again.
Forehand firing; backhand bruising
Nadal ended up ticking both the winners (57 to 48) and unforced errors (43 to 53) boxes against Djokovic. But it's the consistent damage he inflicted with his lethal forehand, which Djokovic could not counter from his efficient backhand wing, that was telling.
Nadal produced 10 forehand winners in the opening set. It shot up to 16 in the second but so did the error count to 13 from that side of his racquet, which provided Djokovic a window to sneak back in from 3-0 down and win it. The southpaw course-corrected and got more solid with his forehand, which trimmed his errors to six each in the third and fourth sets while keeping the winners volume high at six and 10 respectively.
A big indicator of Nadal's confidence is when he fires those forehands down the line catch-me-if-you-can thunderbolts. He frequently brought them out, like in the first set to get the double break and towards the end in a dominant fourth-set tiebreaker.
Djokovic's backhand, among his most trusted weapons, remained erratic; the two back-to-back errors to end the first set and a fluffed putaway at the net in the second, for example. Djokovic had six backhand unforced errors in the first set, which increased to 10, seven, and seven in the next three. The Serb managed to turn things around in the second set courtesy of eight winners from his backhand wing. But once it crashed to a grand zero in the third, so did Djokovic's momentum.
Drop shot, shot down
There was a remarkable stat from Nadal's straight-sets thrashing of Djokovic in the 2020 French Open final in October, played under similar conditions as this night quarter-final. Djokovic, flaunting a different tactic against the Spaniard on clay, won 7/11 and 4/7 drop shot points in the first couple of sets. That figure stood at 2/10 in the third as Nadal began reading the change of pace from the other side a lot better.
The ineffective Djokovic drop shot carried on from one chilly night to another two years on. The world No 1 produced just two winners from the 21 attempted drop shots, winning four other points by inducing an error from Nadal (who, by the way, won 10 points off the drop shot). From the second game of the match where Nadal ran to meet the ball at the net with ease right until the tiebreaker where a Djokovic drop shot crashed into the net at 5-1 down, the strategy from the Serb never bore fruit. Nadal could read it, chase it and counter it.
(Second) Serve it right
A key differentiator in Djokovic's semi-final victory against Nadal last year was second serve point win percentage (50% to Nadal's 40%). On Tuesday, Nadal had the upper hand, and significantly at that. The Spaniard enjoyed a 60% win on the second serve while Djokovic tottered at 42. So impressive was Nadal with his second serve placement, angles and speed that he lost just two points on it during the first and fourth sets.
Nadal, in fact, came out with better serving numbers throughout, getting 71% first serves in (Djokovic had 68%) and winning 65% of those points. The Serb's 64% win rate on points behind the first serve was much lower than his 77% from the first four matches.
No physical troubles
By the time the marathon 18-minute sixth game of the second set ended, Nadal was sweating profusely. Not only did that game see Djokovic spring back to life at 3-3, it seemed to take a bit out of Nadal. It was reminiscent of their four-set semi-final last year, where Djokovic was able to sustain his level physically even as Nadal's waned (he was also treated for blisters on his foot).
No such troubles this time for the Spaniard two days shy of turning 36. Not only did Nadal maintain his physical shape, strength, and stamina during the 252-minute tug-of-war on the court, but his foot also showed no visible signs of discomfort. As he hobbled around in his Rome defeat two weeks before the French Open, the lingering foot issue was the biggest cloud around Nadal's 2022 Roland Garros rendezvous. Not anymore.
Djokovic dusted, bring on Zverev. The French Open favourite is back.