The quarterfinal match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic does not start today at 8:45 p.m. It started yesterday when the Spaniard threw his fist into the air three times and then looked up at the sky. Or even before. There, after struggling against Felix Auger-Aliassime, the head was already in Djokovic, in that challenge that is always number 1, the archenemy, and, everything counts, also when that duel of duels would be played.
Hence, he had already slipped his preference for playing during the day for days. "I don't like to play on clay at night because there is more humidity, the ball is slower and the conditions are more difficult, especially if it's cold," expressed the Balearic.
"I think there is a big difference in how you play on clay at night and during the day," he added. On the other side of the court, Djokovic, who also started playing this match almost at the same moment that luck brought this cross. In a neutral tone, Mats Wilander, a seven-time Grand Slam champion, expressed himself in his role as chair umpire: «At night, the earth gets a little wet and the ball absorbs that moisture; it becomes heavier and it is much more difficult to achieve the desired effect. It cannot be compared to the night sessions on a hard surface because, although there are also temperature changes, the surface does not notice it as much. That is, there are not so many possible effects.
And, although he also admits that the conditions are different, Djokovic pointed to the angles: «The night sessions are still young at Roland Garros, but it is the first time that there is one hundred percent capacity and of course they are being funny. Normally, the night sessions at all tournaments have a much more energetic, more electric atmosphere, with people very involved. Yeah, it's a great experience." “As a top player I have preferences and requests. But those requests are not always accepted. The director of the tournament, the televisions, I think that, in the end, they are the ones who decide when they want to have their match. You just have to adapt. Obviously, depending on who you play against, you prefer to play during the day or at night. There is no standard or formula that always works. Even I, historically, have played and won good night matches at different Grand Slams."
In France, the economic part seems to have weighed, the television rights, above Nadal's 108 wins in Paris (and only three defeats), above his thirteen titles, above that statue erected in his honor by the last year. Amazon, who paid 15 million euros for the night sessions, is the one who has tipped the balance and will offer the game open to all its subscribers in France.
The counterclaim arrives with an enigmatic message from Nadal at the end of his appearance, in which he appealed to those 108 victories at the Philippe Chatrier, to that statue that welcomes fans entering Roland Garros: «To be honest, each match I play here… I don't know if it will be the last of my career here at Roland Garros. This is my situation."
Still, it's Nadal in Paris. And in the Chatrier. The challenge of challenges. This is how Álex Corretja, a former tennis player and commentator now on Eurosport, analyzes it for ABC. «He knows that there are few players who can beat him in the best of five sets. The court is very large and gives him the chance to put a lot of balls inside, to give the ball a lot of spin and he, rather than playing 30% or 40% or 50% faster, is more the feeling that the rival has difficulties. He reassures her and lets her loose because he has more time to recover. And that's why I think he hits her harder. When you see him play here he is more aggressive than in other places because he has a little more margin ». In addition, he adds that he was a finalist in Paris in 1998 and in 2001: «The Philippe Chatrier is a very special track because it is very big. From the baseline to the back fence you have a lot of meters and for Nadal it is good because he has a lot of strength and he plays with a lot of spin and it is very difficult to win points from him. He's left-handed, he opens the effects to the left loop and then has the right track open. It is very difficult to beat him also with the serve because he remains far behind and, even if you serve well, it seems that he always has time to end up reaching that challenge. That is why for Nadal it is an ideal track and for the rivals it is very difficult«.
This is confirmed by Djokovic: «Playing against him at Roland Garros is always an epic battle. It is a huge challenge and probably one of the biggest you can have in this tournament, ”said the Serbian. But the Spaniard also took the ball out of favoritism: “I don't have a recent test with him. And I haven't played this kind of five-set match with players of this level in the last three months. So it's going to be a challenge. In addition, he comes from winning nine consecutive games, since Rome, and without losing a set. He arrives with a lot of confidence ».
And they both want each other. Like all fans, I've been full of Roland Garros from day one and even more so with a menu of this caliber. Even Mats Wilander joins the Nadal-Djokovic party: «I remember last year and I already said that it was the most important in recent times because the winner was probably going to win the 20th Grand Slam. the same. We have to appreciate this because I don't know how many more times they will be able to play here at Roland Garros."
It is a duel of duels even if the prize is less, 'only' a ticket to the semifinals. Because the draw, the injuries, the inactivity of one, the superiority of the other in his absence, have allowed a clash between the two players in the quarterfinals. So good one and the other for so many years, that only a handful of times such a circumstance has occurred. In Rome 2007 and 2016, in Miami 2006 and at Roland Garros 2006, with Nadal winning 6-4, 6-4 and retiring, and at Roland Garros 2015, where Djokovic won - although he did not end up lifting the trophy, which went to Stan Wawrinka. “Novak is doing incredibly well. He's moving really well, he's being aggressive and making drop shots at the right time. He is taking advantage of the energy of the stands; He shows with his attitude that he is number 1. They are not against him, but he is at a disadvantage compared to Nadal, because nobody in Paris is against Nadal », analyzes Wilander.
And it is a duel of duels because it is one of the longest-running rivalries in tennis, and also the most belligerent. Almost the most even, the Serbian wins 30-28 in total, but it is in the partials that occupy this match today where the Spanish is the leader: 19 wins to 8 on clay; 10 to 7 at Grand Slams; seven wins to two at Roland Garros. Those only two defeats that the Spaniard received were in that round of the 2015 quarterfinals and in the semifinals just a year ago. A long time so that desires have not accumulated. At the moment, the first point, that of the hour, is for Djokovic.