Shortly after Rafael Nadal completed his supreme quarter-final victory against Novak Djokovic, as amazement about his four-plus hour effort hung in the air among the many thousands still present, Marion Bartoli ended their post-match interview with a plea, practically begging Nadal to commit to returning next year. It is fair to say that he did not: “See you in two days, that’s the only thing that I can say,” he said, smiling.
The effort from Nadal into the early hours of Wednesday was supreme. Even beyond the discussion of his physical condition, Nadal had arrived in the quarter-final with some of his worst preparation for such a match in Paris. He had never, in his 17 years of competing here, contested the French Open without reaching a single Masters 1000 final during the clay season that year. For all the resilience of Félix Auger-Aliassime in their five-set fourth round match, in the two sets Nadal lost he struck a combined 28 unforced errors to just 13 winners. By his standards, it was dire.
He did not merely raise his level in relation to the all-time great before him, but his level was stratospheric from the beginning. He came out the gates bullying Djokovic in the early exchanges, uncoiling his forehand down-the-line at will, and even though Nadal had also started quickly in their previous two matches in Paris, even with the data Djokovic has compiled over their 58 prior matches, he was initially unprepared to match it. How Nadal ended the match was equally impressive, with the prospect of a fifth set looming as Djokovic led 5-3 and then created two set points on his serve, he again raised his level exactly when needed.
Beyond another superlative display from Nadal, the most notable aspect of his new French Open run has been the doubt that he has continually cast on his future beyond this tournament. Nadal has not always been the most reliable analyst when it comes to his conditioning and preparedness to win a tournament. Despite his ability to transcend form and physical issues time and time again, he often manages expectations and has always been open about his doubts.
His tendency to play down his form or condition before a tournament, only to roar back to success, prompted a curious comment from Djokovic: “I’m not surprised at all. It’s not the first time that he is able to – a few days after he’s injured and barely walking – to come out 100% physically fit,” he said.
But it is reasonable to believe that this is different. His chronic ailment, Mueller-Weiss syndrome, is a condition that he has had since his youth and as a degenerative syndrome, it was likely to become a major factor before the end of his career. In Paris, Nadal has made a distinction between his prospects during the tournament, which he thinks will be fine, compared to what happens after without a long-term solution for his foot. He has stressed the need to enjoy this year given the doubt about his future beyond it.
Nadal said that one of the main differences between the Italian Open, when he was unable to move during his loss to Denis Shapovalov in his last match before the French Open, and Paris is that he has his doctor, Ángel Ruiz Cotorro, with him here, helping to treat the injury. Nadal says that he will discuss his current circumstances afterwards.
“We will speak after the tournament,” he said in Spanish. “Right now, we leave it all on the court, without a doubt. I don’t know what happens after here. But I said after Roma and also here that I will be able to compete and that’s what I am doing. Now isn’t the moment to give many explanations, but I have them. After the tournament, once I’m finished, I will explain.”
Despite the intensity and significance of Nadal’s victory, the brutal nature of a quarter-final match between Djokovic and Nadal is much of the tournament remains. While it is reasonable to predict that Nadal will breeze through the rest of the draw as always after overcoming the best player in the world, he now faces the third best by ranking.
Alexander Zverev gave a demonstration of his own abilities in his quarter-final win against Carlos Alcaraz and he is clearly relishing the current position he has found himself in, far removed from the hype he commanded in his youth, completely overlooked. It would be unwise to overlook him again. Still, Nadal has positioned himself ideally as he chases his 14th title in Paris.