Rafael Nadal faces toughest challenge to French Open supremacy with Novak Djokovic clash

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 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

Before he had struck a ball in anger at this French Open it was clear that 13-time champion Rafael Nadal faced perhaps the toughest Roland Garros task of his career.

Returning to a venue he has owned so emphatically, Nadal had seen his season disrupted by a rib injury and then dogged by a long-standing foot problem. His fitness was a major concern even before the draw threw up a run full of them, the collision course set for a quarter-final meeting with world No1 Novak Djokovic, and the young pretender, Carlos Alcaraz, likely to be waiting beyond that.

Nothing that has happened since has made life any easier. Nadal was taken to five sets at Roland Garros for only the third time in his career before overcoming Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday, while Djokovic has kept up his end of the bargain in rather more serene fashion to set up Tuesday night’s blockbuster. That it is tonight, rather than today, is another spanner in the works for Nadal, who would sooner have the ball skipping off a firmer, drier surface in the sun.

Djokovic will have little sympathy for his rival, particularly on the subject of organisational grievances, given the events which conspired to rule him out of the first Grand Slam of the season in Australia, where Nadal took advantage to go clear on 21 men’s Major singles titles.

With Nadal admitting he fears every match at Roland Garros could be his last, Djokovic must feel that if he were to pull level with that haul at the end of this fortnight, he may never again trail, though with Alcaraz lurking, any notion that tonight’s meeting is a de facto final would be wide of the mark.

For all this is a ‘home’ fixture for Nadal, it is Djokovic who comes in as favourite.

The most recent of the pair’s French Open clashes saw Djokovic prevail in a semi-final epic only 12 months ago, and it is with that duel fresh in the memory, and so many others long imprinted there, that anticipation has been building for the latest since long before it was confirmed.

Given the looming spectre of Nadal’s injury troubles, the pessimist might fear tonight’s meeting is just as likely to echo their first, another quarter-final in 2006, which ended prematurely, with the teenage Serbian retiring hurt.

But 16 years and 58 matches have not created and sustained one of sport’s great rivalries without deviating from the script every now and again. The 59th is, for one reason or another, certain to be worth savouring.

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