Rafael Nadal scratches past Felix Auger-Aliassime to earn Novak Djokovic quarter-final
Rafael Nadal took his time but eventually kept his side of the bargain to set up the quarter-final showdown that will probably define this year’s French Open.
Nadal will face arch-rival Novak Djokovic after overcoming the determined Felix Auger-Aliassime across five enthralling sets over four hours and 21 minutes.
It was a match in sharp contrast to Djokovic’s, the world number one taking just two and a quarter hours to dispatch Diego Schwartzman.
The gilded duo’s receptions were also in stark contract to each other; Nadal’s entrance and every point won were cheered to the rafters on Chatrier while, over on Lenglen, Djokovic was booed as he walked on to court and cupped his ear at a strangely hostile crowd.
Argentinian Schwartzman was clearly being backed by a large South American and Spanish contingent, but the jeering of the defending champion seemed excessive and even prompted Eurosport’s Alex Corretja to say: “I don’t like that. It’s Novak Djokovic. He has given us so much.”
Djokovic’s name was even booed when uttered during Nadal’s on-court interview, but he had already given the perfect response with a 6-1 6-3 6-3 demolition of the 15th seed.
The Serbian has yet to drop a set in the tournament as he bids for a record-equalling 21st grand slam title.
“I’ve made a good start – but I have a lot of work to do,” said Djokovic.
That work will begin with Nadal on Tuesday, although the hotly-anticipated, blockbuster last-eight meeting looked at times on Sunday like being cancelled.
The Spaniard, hunting for title number 14 on the red dirt of Paris, attended the Champions League final on Saturday evening.
It appeared for a while that he may have celebrated Real Madrid’s victory over Liverpool a little too much, as he was broken twice by Auger-Aliassime on his way to losing the first set.
Nadal’s uncle Toni, who will have had mixed feelings as he coaches the Canadian ninth seed, was watching on from a position of neutrality in the presidential box as his nephew hauled himself into a 2-1 lead.
But when Auger-Aliassime took Nadal into a fifth set – for only the third time at Roland Garros – it was all too much for Nadal senior to bear and he left.
He missed a cracker of a decider, Nadal pouncing in the eighth game and then serving out despite some heroic defending from his young opponent.
“He’s a great player without a doubt, one of the best in the world,” said Nadal after his 3-6 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-3 win.
“When I played well, I won the match. When I played not that well, I had a lot of troubles.
“But the most important thing is that I played a good fifth set, and especially the last three or four games I played with the right dimensions, so I’m very happy for that.
“All respect and credit to Felix, he’s playing better and better. If you are not able to push him back it’s very difficult to control him, because he has a huge serve and his first shot with his forehand is very aggressive.”
The latest sub-plot will be whether tournament chiefs put the Nadal-Djokovic match on as the showpiece night session, given that it would therefore not be on free-to-air television in France.
The players will also have their say, and Nadal has already stated he does not like playing at night, while Djokovic smiled: “All I will say is Rafa and I would make different requests.” The first battle will need to be won before a ball is even struck.
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