Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will play in a quarterfinal at the French Open on Tuesday night, their 59th career meeting and 10th at Roland Garros.
The rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic began in the quarterfinals of the French Open.
Sixteen years later, it just might end in the quarterfinals of the French Open.
Nadal vs. Djokovic has been, undoubtedly, one of the best and closest extended tussles in sports: with ebbs and flows in confidence and dominance in matches across four continents and, unlike with Nadal’s less prolific rivalry with Federer, at all four of the Grand Slam tournaments.
Nadal and Djokovic, both 35 until Nadal’s birthday on Thursday, once shared a closer connection and even a publicist, but whatever their disagreements now on Covid-19 vaccination or tennis politics, they will always be connected as part of the triangle that has defined men’s tennis since the late 2000s, when Djokovic rose to meet the bar set by Nadal and Federer.
But Tuesday’s quarterfinal, which will be played at night at Roland Garros despite Nadal’s lobbying for the day session, comes at an intriguing moment on multiple levels.
For the first time, a group of much younger players who look like a legitimate collective threat has emerged: a Generation Z cohort all 21 years old or younger. It is led with panache by Carlos Alcaraz of Spain and includes the Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, who pushed Nadal to five sets on Sunday, and Holger Rune, a potentially great Dane in a backward ball cap who knocked out Stefanos Tsitsipas, last year’s French Open runner-up, with a bewitching brew of power and touch on Monday on the main court, Philippe Chatrier.
Alcaraz and Rune are just 19 and in the quarterfinals, and though Nadal vs. Djokovic will take up plenty of air and head space between now and very late Tuesday night, there might be even more anticipation within the sport to see Nadal or Djokovic face Alcaraz in the next round than to watch Nadal and Djokovic play for a 59th time.
The novelty factor is real, particularly after Alcaraz beat Nadal and Djokovic back-to-back on red clay on his way to winning the Madrid Open earlier this month.
There are no shortage of dissenters, of course.
“I’ll take No. 59,” said Julien Benneteau, the French former player who is now the country’s King Cup captain. “These guys are two monuments of tennis, along with Federer. I can’t wait to watch it again.”
Alcaraz, full of flash and fire, is no lock to reach the semifinals, even if he will be favored against the No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev in a quarterfinal that will end the day session on the Chatrier Court before the main event occupies the red, rectangular stage.