Commentary: Why you shouldn’t miss the Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic French Open showdown

Rafael Nadal, left, and Novak Djokovic
Rafael Nadal, left, and Novak Djokovic will meet in the quarterfinals at the French Open. It will be the 59th match between the rivals.
(Alessandra Tarantino; Michel Euler / Associated Press)
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On Tuesday, Paris will feature a nice French kiss for tennis fans.

An aging, stubborn, driven, clay-court dynamo named Rafael Nadal will be playing a less-aging, equally stubborn and almost equally driven clay-court expert named Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the French Open.

Nadal and Djokovic have faced off 58 times in pro tennis tournaments, few of which have been anything less than a 12-round, pull-no-punch, heavyweight championship. Djokovic has won 30 of those matches, but the red clay at Roland Garros is a home court for Nadal.

That’s why, even if your tennis experience is little more than a few hit-and-giggles at nearby public courts, and even if differing time zones ultimately put this one in the middle of the night, you might want to tune in. At least catch the replay.


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That’s mostly because of Nadal, who will turn 36 on Friday. The tennis world keeps looking for forehead wrinkles, reading glasses and an occasional hitch in his git-along. Some have been there. Foot surgery. Sore knees. Bad wrists.

But when Nadal comes to Paris and Roland Garros, it might as well be Lourdes. He has shown up every year since 2005, when he was still a teenager, and he has left before being handed the championship trophy only four times, once when he had to default because of an injury. That’s not just dominance. That’s crazy. John Wooden crazy. Joe DiMaggio crazy.

One of his losses at the French was to Robin Soderling, a Swedish player going against Nadal on a day when the planets had to be out of alignment. His other two losses at the French have been to Djokovic, who is currently No. 1 in the world and No. 5,000 in the eyes of people who think getting the COVID-19 vaccine is a good idea. The red clay of Paris is Nadal’s house, and only Djokovic has been able to sneak in through a back window a couple of times to win the tournament. Even the great Roger Federer, who likes clay courts like 5-year-olds like spinach, only has won one title at the French. That was in 2009, when Mars was circling Pluto and Soderling took out Nadal.

Novak Djokovic plays a shot.
Novak Djokovic plays a shot during his first-round win over Yoshihito Nishioka at the French Open on Monday.
(Michel Euler / Associated Press)

It is clear that great tennis, even at the quarterfinal level of this match, will be ours to behold. Djokovic, who just turned 35, is fast and flexible, a fighter who loves to win. He has won 20 majors himself, just one behind the record-setting leader Nadal. Djokovic’s greatness is indisputable. His anti-vax stance isn’t.

Nadal is a pit bull. When he is healthy and playing on clay — or facing somebody other than Djokovic — they might as well call off the tournament and mail him the trophy. He seldom loses. He never quits. The other guy gets no favors. Nadal thinks he has to win, and he usually does. He has made a career out of being down in the final set, 3-1, and refusing to just let it go. Nadal at 1-3 of the final set is like everybody else at 5-1.


No less than Bjorn Borg once famously said that Nadal “played every point like it was match point.”

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating Corentin Moutet in the second round at the French Open on Wednesday.
(Christophe Ena / Associated Press)

It will be hard not to root for Nadal, partly because he is the ultimate competitor and also manages to be the ultimate decent guy. If Djokovic beats him, expect a courtside speech from Nadal about what a great person and competitor Novak is.

But Djokovic doesn’t exactly wear a dark hat in this tennis faceoff either.

He too is a decent guy who says and does the right thing most of the time — except maybe on the vaccine issue — and deeply respects the greatness of Federer and Nadal, while striving for his own legacy alongside those two. He once used an entire news conference at the U.S. Open to introduce a young girl he had befriended through her parents and who had stunning singing talents for her age. Instead of talking about himself, he asked the gathered media to listen to her sing. She sang, everybody was impressed, and the premise that sports stars always make it all about themselves was, for the moment, debunked.

How Nadal has won this title 13 times, in arguably the physically toughest tennis tournament in the world, defies description. The French Open is where you usually need to hit a dozen shots just to win one point and run twice as far, maybe three times, as you would in any other major. The Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are physical grinds. The French is where you run a 26-mile marathon in the early rounds to get ready for an Ironman Triathlon.

So, as they say on TV about special upcoming events — or pretty much any event — check your local listings. Can’t-miss TV is an overused phrase. Not this time.