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French Open: Tennis History Well After Midnight

At 1.18 a.m. local time, Rafael Nadal wins the eternal duel against Novak Đoković. It could have been the last duel of world athletes.

"Raaafaaaa, Raaafaaaa!"

Again and again, the long-drawn-out chants echo across the Center Court Philippe-Chatrier and they get louder the longer this catch-up race lasts. It's well past midnight, the fourth movement is being played. The band, which provided hours of musical accompaniment and atmosphere on the upper tier, can no longer be heard for a long time.

"Raaafaaaa, Raaafaaaa!"

3: 5 that Rafa is behind in this important sentence. And when he leads 30:15 in an opponent's service game and sniffs a break, the around 15,000 spectators increase again to a new decibel level, which is sure to put the locals in the neighboring residential area in the 16th arrondissement to sleep shortly before 1 a.m must rob. 

"Raaafaaaa, Raaafaaaa!"

The crowd is on the side of his 13-time champion. It's not always fair. But with his help, Nadal actually manages to return to this sentence that he thought was lost. In the end he will dominate the tiebreak, Đoković's momentum has long since disappeared, and after a typical, countered Rafael Nadal forehand to make it 3-0, the resistance of his biggest opponent is broken.

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At 1.18 a.m. local time, after 4:12 hours of play, the Mallorcan stretches both arms into the night sky after the 6: 2, 4: 6, 6: 2 and 7: 6 (4) and lets himself be celebrated. For their record winner, even the older spectators uncuddled themselves from their brown, white and green blankets at only 13 degrees and are now standing. As Đoković packs the court and leaves with his head bowed without a greeting, everyone is clapping - for Nadal, for his life's work in Paris and for this historic moment itself. Because, as the winner himself suggests, it could have been the last meeting between the two tennis greats.

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Almost an hour later, the winner appears at the press conference deep in the arena's catacombs; at the same time he listens to congratulatory voice messages from home. Then he says: "The crowd has been so great since the tournament started. You probably know that I won't be coming back here very often." The half-sentence of Nadal is provided with a smile. For years, Nadal has been trying to tell the story that his body could no longer cope with top-class sport. Nevertheless, hardly a highlight of the year goes by without top performances from Nadal. 

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A foot injury has accompanied him since his youth. In 2021 he was photographed on crutches in late autumn. The miraculous healing followed, along with brilliant performances both in terms of play and physical fitness, in Australia in January 2022, when he won the final after a 2-0 set deficit against Daniil Medvedev, who was a good ten years his junior, and with 21 titles in Đoković's absence due to vaccination (20 titles like Federer) alone leaders in the race for the Grand Slam record.

After what he says was a tear in the abdominal muscles in February 2022, there was another four-week break at home in Manacor. In Rome, when he lost to Denis Shapovalov on May 12, he could hardly sprint because of his foot. Two weeks later, Nadal marched through the field in Paris from lap to lap - apparently without any physical problems. After the mentally and physically demanding five-set win against Félix Auger-Aliassime, he didn't let up a bit against Đoković. Novak Djokovic is not surprised.

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Đoković reacts irritably to Nadal's injury breaks

"I didn't see any problems with him," says the Serb. When asked if he was surprised, he replied with a stony look: "No, I'm not." He interrupted another request and explained: "I'm not surprised at all. It's not the first time that he's 100 percent fit again just a few days after an injury that left him barely able to walk. He's done that many times done in his career."

"I said in Rome that here in Paris I will have my doctor with me again. That you can do things that help if he is there. But it's not the moment to talk about it," said Nadal. The Spaniard meets Alexander Zverev on Friday, who won against Nadal's compatriot Carlos Alcaraz in four sets. 

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But it was the 59th duel between world athletes Nadal and Đoković that captivated tennis fans in Paris and around the world. At the French Open alone , it was the tenth meeting between the two. No other duel has happened more often in the Open Era - no matter what tournament. 30 matches went to the Serbs, 29 won Nadal. The clay court king of the past 17 years increased the statistics on his favorite surface to 20:8 and also has more successes in the four biggest tournaments in the world (11:7).

Nadal vs. Đoković earlier and earlier

The quarter-finals of the two best players of the past ten years was conjured up with a lot of pathos. Nadal has been looked at for a long time. Since his first triumph in Paris in 2005, he has competed with Roger Federer for the top spot in professional tennis. Đoković, almost a year his junior, joined at the end of the 2000s and caught up with an unprecedented mixture of ambition and adaptability. In most statistics, Đoković has surpassed both of his opponents over the next decade. Đoković led the world rankings for 350 weeks at the turn of the year 2022. He has long since left Federer (311, 2nd place) and Nadal (209, 6th place) behind. While Federer's competitive return remains uncertain at the age of 41 after suffering another serious knee injury.

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"Unfortunately, they meet one round earlier every year," Đoković's coach Goran Ivanišević confessed to the New York Times before the match . Two years ago it was the final, in 2021 the semifinals. "Now it's possibly the best quarter-final in French Open history," said Ivanišević. The assessment was a bit too euphoric. In terms of play, the duel on Wednesday night did not always meet the highest standards. For a set and a half and an hour and a half, Nadal was clearly the better player. Despite the relative cold, his balls bounced high after his topspin hits, which puzzled Đoković. The expert opinions in Paris that the night session was an advantage for the world number one from Serbia were refuted. Đoković failed to generate pressure with either his serve or baseline shots. Only a twenty-minute service game by Nadal in the middle of the second set changed the story of this match. Now Nadal also failed some forehands, both sides showed weaknesses - at the end of the Spaniards a few less.

fuss about appointments

The unfamiliar framework conditions had an impact on the quality of the match. A streaming service has secured the exclusive rights for the relatively new night sessions in France. After tough negotiations behind the scenes, the choice for this slot fell on the duel of the old masters, although both, but especially Nadal, had repeatedly publicly opposed it. After the defeat, a dejected but very reflective Đoković criticized the late start time (8:45 p.m.). "The broadcasters and services decide. This is the world we live in. You pay the money, they decide."

Đoković showed himself as a fair loser in relation to the match. "He was the better player in the crucial moments and started well." After winning the set, Nadal played two or three fantastic games. "In the fourth set he showed what a great champion he is, staying mentally in the match and ending the match coming back like that."

In the Serbian part of the press round, however, Đoković added: "The crowd did a lot to help us come back in the fourth set. They were 99.9 percent on his side and they pulled him up in the decisive moments and helped to find his energy." 

"Raaafaaaa, Raaafaaaa!"

 The calls also left their mark on Novak Đoković.

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