Rafael Nadal demonstrated once again why he is the greatest player in French Open history by beating long-time rival Novak Djokovic in a late-night thriller to reach the men’s singles semi-finals.
Rafael Nadal, going for a 14th title, started superbly and fought off resistance from defending champion Djokovic to win 6-2 4-6 6-2 7-6 (7-4) at Roland Garros.
Rafael Nadal secured victory at 1:15am local time after over four hours on court.
The 21-time Grand Slam winner now faces third seed Alexander Zverev on Friday.
Germany’s Zverev, 25, reached the semi-finals for the second successive year after surviving teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz’s fightback earlier on Tuesday.
“To win against Novak there is only one way: to play your best from the first point to the last,” said 35-year-old Nadal, who thanked the Paris crowd for showing their “love”.
“This is one of those magic nights for me.”
Victory for fifth seed Nadal avenged his semi-final defeat by Djokovic last year and extended his all-time record on the Roland Garros clay to 110 wins in 113 matches.
The rivalry between the pair is the most enduring in men’s tennis, with Nadal winning their 59th meeting seeing him narrow the gap to 30-29 in the head-to-head.
“Rafael Nadal showed why he is a great champion and stayed mentally tough. No doubt he deserves it,” said Djokovic.
BBC tennis correspondent Russell Fuller
This was a gripping, captivating match with some ferocious hitting and also human frailty on display.
The plot twists were numerous and startling: especially Djokovic fading in a fourth set he had led 5-2.
Perhaps a lack of intense matches cost him. He did after all miss the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami and had not played a match longer than three sets since September’s US Open semi-final.
Rafael Nadal’s 29th win over Djokovic will only be truly significant if he goes on to win a 22nd Grand Slam title. And don’t for one moment consider that a formality now even with Djokovic and Alcaraz are out of the draw.
The 35-year-old has spent eight and a half hours on court in his past two matches, and will be grateful for an extra day of rest before Friday’s semi-final.
Short presentational grey line.
Fast start pays dividends for Nadal
In front of an adoring crowd, Nadal earned another memorable win on the court where he has enjoyed the greatest successes of his career.
At the end of last year the Spaniard thought he would have to retire because of a chronic foot problem and was hampered by the issue at the Italian Open earlier this month.
A stress fracture of the rib also caused him to miss two months of the season shortly after his record-breaking 21st major win at the Australian Open.
Despite turning 36 later this week, and needing five sets to beat Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday, he dug deep into his physical and mental reserves to beat top seed Djokovic.
Rafael Nadal blew Djokovic away in fast starts in both of the pair’s matches at Roland Garros in 2020 and 2021 and, although those matches ended in different conclusions, he set out to do the same this time.
The left-hander played superbly in the first set, pinning Djokovic back in the court and punishing him with fizzing forehand winners.
Rafael Nadal took two of his four break opportunities, while saving both of Djokovic’s two, to win a 50-minute opening set.
Hitting 12 winners compared to six unforced errors was a complete contrast to his slow start in the previous round against Auger-Aliassime.
That laid the platform for Nadal to eventually go on to reach a record 15th semi-final at Roland Garros.
“It was an emotional night and I still play for nights like tonight,” said Nadal, who won seven of 17 break points and saved eight of 12 for Djokovic.
“But it is just a quarter-final and I still have a semi-final to come. I will stay emotionally stable and get ready for the semi-final.”
Djokovic unable to take chances
While Nadal has had fitness issues, Djokovic’s season has been disrupted by not being allowed to play in the Australian Open and tournaments in the United States because he was not vaccinated against Covid-19.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion looked to be heading towards peak form, winning the title in Rome and then not dropping a set at Roland Garros going into the quarter-finals.
Many had thought playing the match in the colder night-time conditions would also favour the Serb.
However, two-time champion Djokovic was far from his best after being overwhelmed by Nadal in the early stages.
Maintaining his sky-high level proved to be the issue for Nadal in last year’s semi-final, but the Spaniard broke again and moved into a 3-0 lead in the second set.
While temperatures started to drop, Djokovic began to warm up and fought back to level at 3-3 after a sixth game lasting almost 19 minutes.
Lengthy games with few routine holds continued and the set eventually tipped in the favour of Djokovic when Nadal cracked a forehand long on the second set point.
“He was the better player in the important moments, he started well and I didn’t start so well,” said Djokovic.
“I gained momentum in the second set and I thought I was back in the game. But he was able to take his tennis to another level.”
Rafael Nadal broke to love at the start of the third set and moved into a 4-1 lead when a double fault from Novak Djokovic was followed by the Serb dragging a crosscourt backhand wide.
Rafael Nadal served out for a two-sets-to-one advantage with few problems as time passed midnight in Paris and a chill whipped around the stands.
Yet few fans decided to leave and many of those who stayed were wrapped up in blankets.
Novak Djokovic broke for a 2-0 lead early in the fourth but missed two set points when serving at 5-3 and was punished when Nadal nailed a crosscourt forehand winner to put the set back on serve.
Most of the 15,000-capacity crowd was supporting Nadal and their patience was rewarded when he dominated the tie-break to earn a stunning victory.
Nadal led 6-1 in the breaker and took his fourth match point with a driving backhand down the line before soaking up the acclaim of a jubilant Chatrier.