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Analysis: Might Djokovic vs. Nadal, Part 59, be their last?

May 30, 2022 Updated Mon., May 30, 2022 at 6 p.m.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic, left, shakes hands with Spain's Rafael Nadal after their semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, Friday, June 11, 2021 in Paris. When Djokovic and Nadal meet in the French Open quarterfinals on Tuesday, May 31, 2022, it will be their 59th career matchup, more than any other two men in the professional era of tennis, and their first showdown since last year's semifinals at Roland Garros.  (Associated Press)
Serbia's Novak Djokovic, left, shakes hands with Spain's Rafael Nadal after their semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, Friday, June 11, 2021 in Paris. When Djokovic and Nadal meet in the French Open quarterfinals on Tuesday, May 31, 2022, it will be their 59th career matchup, more than any other two men in the professional era of tennis, and their first showdown since last year's semifinals at Roland Garros. (Associated Press)
By Howard Fendrich Associated Press

PARIS – This French Open is the first Grand Slam tournament in a year with both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the field. And anyone who enjoys men’s tennis – or, indeed, sports – should be thrilled that those two titans of the game will face each other for a record 59th time.

Is it a shame Tuesday night’s match is “only” a quarterfinal, instead of something with more at stake? Perhaps. Will that dissuade anyone from watching from afar or dull the atmosphere that’ll envelop Court Philippe Chatrier? Doubtful.

Could it decrease the intensity of each player’s performance? Not a chance.

“I’m ready for it,” Djokovic said.

“I hope to be able to give myself a chance to play at the highest level possible,” Nadal said, “and then let’s see.”

So then the question that Nadal will have on his mind – and we know so because he said so – and Djokovic might, too, is: How many more of these showdowns are there going to be?

First of all, Nadal turns 36 on Friday; Djokovic turned 35 on May 22, the first day of the French Open.

“I don’t know what can happen in the near future with my career,” Nadal said.

His body has been a big issue over the past 12 months. He missed the last half of last season, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, because of chronic pain in his left foot that flared up again in recent weeks. After his 20-0 start to 2022, he missed three tournaments because of a rib injury.

“I can’t complain much,” Nadal said, noting that 21/2 weeks ago he had no idea whether he’d make it this far.

“Being honest, every match that I play here, I don’t know if it’s going to be my last match here in Roland Garros. … That’s my situation now,” he said after edging 21-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime in five sets Sunday night. “That’s why I am just trying to enjoy as much as possible.”

Auger-Aliassime said Nadal did not appear to be hampered or slowed at all during their fourth-round thriller, which lasted nearly 41/2 hours, almost twice as long as Djokovic’s straight-set win Sunday over 15th-seeded Diego Schwartzman.

Djokovic hasn’t dropped a set through four matches.

“He’s Novak,” Schwartzman said, “and if you are not 100% … obviously, the result is like this.”

As for Djokovic, his decision to not get vaccinated against COVID-19 prevented him from participating at the Australian Open and, while he’s been assured that won’t be a problem at Wimbledon when it starts June 27, his status for the U.S. Open is uncertain at the moment.

Whether statistics, aesthetics or any other measures is applied, both are among the greatest there’s ever been. About that there can be no debate.

Both have won every Grand Slam tournament at least twice. Nadal owns a men’s-record 21 Slam titles, a number he reached with a tiebreaking triumph at the Australian Open in January. Djokovic, like Roger Federer, is one behind. Djokovic has all sorts of other bona fides, including more weeks spent at No. 1 in the ATP rankings than anyone else and the only man with at least two trophies from every Masters event. He also leads both Federer and Nadal head to head.

Djokovic and Nadal have played each other more frequently than any other pair of men in the half-century-plus of professional tennis. Djokovic leads 30-28 overall; Nadal leads 19-8 on clay, including 7-2 at Roland Garros. Nadal is 109-3 at the French Open, with a record 13 championships, and two of those three losses came against Djokovic, including in the semifinals a year ago en route to the title.

“Playing him in Roland Garros is always a physical battle,” Djokovic said, “along with everything else.”

This one is such a big deal that it was scheduled for the night session, even though Nadal made it clear he prefers playing daytime matches on clay, and it’s been made available for free to everyone in France via a streaming service under a special arrangement.

Whoever wins will take on third-seeded Alexander Zverev or sixth-seeded Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinals. The other men’s quarterfinals are No. 7 Andrey Rublev vs. No. 20 Marin Cilic, and No. 8 Casper Ruud vs. unseeded Holger Rune.

Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spaniard considered the Next Big Thing in men’s tennis, knows a significant match when he sees one coming.

“If I can,” Alcaraz said about Djokovic vs. Nadal, “I will watch it.”

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