Rafael Nadal emerged victorious from another titanic French Open clash with Novak Djokovic to move a step closer to a record-extending 22 Grand Slam title.
Nadal, a 13-time champion in Paris, showed all his fighting spirit and quality to win a gripping quarter-final 6-2 4-6 6-2 7-6(3), the match lasting four hours and 12 minutes and finishing at 1.15am local time.
The scoreline doesn’t do justice to a remarkable contest – the 59th in the rivalry – that featured several mammoth games, jaw-dropping hitting, fluctuating shifts in momentum, Nadal leading by a double break in all of the first three sets, an 84-minute second set, and Djokovic spurning two set points to force a decider – all played out in a pulsating atmosphere on Court Philippe Chatrier even as the temperature dropped late in the night.
In the end it was Nadal who prevailed, lifting his arms in celebration as he booked his place in the last four against Alexander Zverev, who earlier beat Carlos Alcaraz in four sets.
“Novak is one of the best players in history without doubt; so always playing against him is an amazing challenge with all the history we have together,” said Nadal afterwards.
“Today was another one, and to win against him there is only one way: to play your best from the first point to the last. Tonight has been one of these magic nights for me; an unexpected level but super happy.”
Nadal is now just two wins away from a 22nd Grand Slam title which would move him two ahead of Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Tim Henman had called this the “most important” men’s match of the last 10 years in the race to finish the most major titles, and there was tension and drama throughout.
The opening game set the tone, lasting 10 minutes and featuring an absorbing 22-shot rally, before Djokovic netted to give Nadal the early break.
From there the Spaniard ran away with the set, breaking again for 4-1 with a vicious forehand winner down the line.
Backed by the majority of a vocal crowd, Nadal looked in control of the contest, finding the mark with his serves and forcing Djokovic into errors.
There was no let up from Nadal after taking a 49-minute first set, the winners continuing to fly as he created seven break-point chances in an epic opening game of the second set.
Eventually the pressure told, a forehand pinning Djokovic into the corner and Nadal putting away a volley at the net to break.
Nadal consolidated the break and then added another, sliding into a drop shot and knocking the return down the line for his 23rd winner and a 3-0 lead.
But having looked below his best in the opening hour, Djokovic started to raise his level, hitting with more consistency and power on both wings.
The world No. 1 broke back for 3-1 and then won an 18-minute sixth game, in which Nadal was given a time violation over his serve, to get back on level terms.
The momentum looked to be with Djokovic as he won a fourth game in a row, but Nadal dragged himself back to his best level and played some scintillating points to hold for 4-4.
The 13-time champion could not fend off Djokovic on his next service game, though, missing twice in a row from the back of the court to give up the set.
But Djokovic came out flat to start the third set and fell 2-0 behind. Another lengthy hold saw Nadal push the advantage to 3-1 and a poor service game from Djokovic saw him hand over another break.
The world No. 1 looked a different player to the one that won the second set as the error count started to creep up again, with a wild missed forehand giving Nadal the set.
With fans in the crowd wrapped in blankets as the temperature dropped, Djokovic showed his frustration as he whacked the net after losing the point.
But Djokovic then broke when a drop shot from Nadal landed just wide, having been checked by the umpire in discussion with the Spaniard.
Djokovic looked poised to take the match to a fifth set at 5-2 ahead until Nadal found another level, saving two set points and breaking back in an incredible game.
With the crowd on Chatrier roaring him on, Nadal upped the pace and found Djokovic wanting.
Nadal surged into a 6-1 lead in the tiebreak as error flew from Djokovic’s racquet, and despite a fightback from the world No. 1, it was Nadal who clinched a memorable victory.