THE RIVETING RIVALRY: It shines bright. The gleaming jewel in tennis’ crown, a rivalry like no other. Novak vs. Rafa is tennis’ heavyweight championship – the sport’s answer to Ali vs. Frazier, Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain, the Red Sox vs. the Yankees. Tuesday night the Serb and the Spaniard will face off for the 59th time.
Over 15 years, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert played each other 80 times, and gave the sport an iconic rivalry that may never be equaled. Borg vs. McEnroe and Connors vs. McEnroe matches were ferocious, often rowdy clashes that empowered the tennis boom. Pistol Pete Sampras vs. Andre “Image is Everything” Agassi was a delicious study in contrasts: a classic, inward man rich with athletic grace vs. an in-your-face showman from Las Vegas, dripping with charisma.
Roger Federer and Nadal ushered in a long-lasting golden age, and in 2008 at Wimbledon, they gave us the best match of all time.
Of late, Novak vs. Rafa matches have been the gold standard. Jaws dropped when the draw came out and the two seemed bound to meet in the quarterfinals. To some, this would be the real French Open final. After Novak was deported from Australia and banned from America, he haltingly began the clay court season, suffering losses to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and Andrey Rublev.
But he gamely regrouped, and is now peaking. He won the Italian Open and is on a nine-match winning streak. His Australian debacle is in the rear view mirror and he has his swagger back. He’s standing tall, bending low and displaying his uncanny court coverage. Here he hasn’t lost a set.
Nadal started the year on a tear. He was undefeated until the Indian Wells semis. Then he suffered a cracked rib, and his left foot remains the most intriguing injury in tennis. Only a brave fourth-round rally here allowed him to get past Felix Auger-Aliassime, in a bruising 4:21 battle.
The Novak-Rafa rivalry bristles with combating fan bases and compelling differences. Rafa is a gentleman warrior who asserts, “The humanity needs a little more calm.” But no other star has been more polarizing than Novak since McEnroe and Connors. He’s gone from one high-profile happening to another: being booted out of the 2020 US Open, failing to win the Grand Slam in New York last September, and then refusing to be vaccinated. There were slight boos when Novak went on court the other day, while Paris fans like to chant “Rafa! Rafa! Rafa!” and there’s a bigger-than-life statue of Nadal on the Roland Garros.
Novak started an insurgent player group, the Professional Players Tennis Association: power to the players. Rafa is a “Don’t rock the boat” ATP loyalist. He says being No. 1 is just a number – he doesn’t care. Novak says gaining the top spot is the goal of every player every year. Djokovic has won the Aussie Open nine times, but Rafa scored a monumental Melbourne win in January. Rafa is a 13-time French Open winner, but Novak downed him in the 2021 semis en route to the title.
Novak is an exquisite right-handed craftsman. His lean, sinewy body stretches the limits. Few penetrate his defenses. His backhand and return of serve are legendary. His serve has been imposing. He has a winning 30-28 record against Nadal, and many say he is the GOAT.
Rafa is a muscular southpaw brawler with explosive shots, who loves the battle and finds a way to victory. Roland Garros is Rafa’s happy hunting ground. Clay is his surface. He owns a 19-8 advantage over Nole on the dirt. He’s only lost three times in his house. But two of those losses came against Novak, who knows how to take it to the king – the king of clay.
Tuesday’s match promises to be yet another brawl. And only one thing is for sure – tennis will be the winner.
THREE AMERICANS TO QUARTERS: Three Americans – Jessica Pegula, Coco Gauff and Sloane Stephens – are through to the quarterfinals, but not Madison Keys. The No. 22 Keys, who was hoping to reach her sixth Grand Slam quarterfinal, did break out smartly from the gate and took the first set from Veronika Kudermetova, 6-1. But the Russian regrouped and won running away with a 6-3, 6-1 victory. In just the opposite manner, No. 11 seed Jessica Pegula, who was seeking to reach her second consecutive major quarterfinal, was sluggish at the start in her match against Irina-Camelia Begu, but then used her muscular baseline game to take control en route to a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 win. She will next face Iga Swiatek, and Gauff and Stephens will face off tomorrow.
A TALE OF TWO GENDERS: No. 2 Daniil Medvedev and No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas both lost, but 6 of the top 8 men’s seeds are still in the draw. For days, Swiatek has been the only top ten seed in the women’s draw.
IGA’S WOBBLY WIN: Iga Swiatek, who was on a 30-match win streak, wobbled badly against the Chinese teen Qinwen Zheng, who was playing just her second major. Iga seemed fragile and frustrated as she lost the last five points of the first set tie-break. In her head she was getting too technical. She didn’t want to hear from her box. She didn’t know what was wrong.
But then Zheng suffered a thigh injury and Swiatek managed to prevail in an odd, perplexing match. The Pole’s streak goes on, and for the 16th time this year she won a set by a 6-0 score. The 20-year-old is still the prohibitive favorite to win Roland Garros. But her 6-7(5), 6-0, 6-2 win raised questions.
AN EIFFEL TOWER DREAM: Teen Qinwen Zheng told Inside Tennis, “When I was young in school, in Chinese book…they have Eiffel Tower picture. So when I was young, for me, Eiffel Tower in Paris is like a dream. I never think about I can be there. It is exactly the same like in the book – Wow, amazing.”
NEWS OF THE NATIONS: Within 24 hours in Paris, Spain won the coveted Champions League title, Rafa scored his fabulous five-set triumph over Felix Auger-Aliassime and Charlie Alcaraz continued his star-is-born run…There are three Russians left in the draw – Andrey Rublev, Veronika Kudermetova and Daria Kasatkina, who will face each other in the quarters…Incredibly, Scandinavia is again rocking Paris, just like the old days when Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander won nine titles and Robin Soderling scored perhaps the most historic upset in these parts. Today it wasn’t a Swedish story. Rather, Norway’s No. 8 Casper Ruud downed No. 12 Pole Hubert Hurkacz and Denmark’s unseeded 19-year-old Holger Rune scored a shocking upset over a surprisingly placid No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who came within a set of winning last year’s title.
GO FIGURE: If Jessie Pegula wins in the quarterfinals she’ll pass Danielle Collins to become the No. 1 American. If she wins the French Open she’ll become No. 2 in the world.
JUST WONDERING: Why was Stefanos Tsitsipas’ performance today so indifferent? Has he really recovered from his devastating loss in last year’s French Open final?
QUOTEBOOK: “The great Dane has continued his great run.” – Radio Roland Garros on Holger Rune
“We’ve all been there. You’re doing everything right, but nothing is happening. It’s a very lonely feeling out there.” – Caroline Wozniacki on Madison Keys’ problematic loss today
WHAT DO TOP 40 PLAYERS NAOMI OSAKA, EMMA RADUCANU, LEYLAH FERNANDEZ AND CHINA’S QINWEN ZHENG, WHO IS INTO THE FOURTH ROUND, HAVE IN COMMON? All are Asian or of Asian heritage.