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With a clear mind, Nadal finds “level A” when few thought it possible

The 13-time champion knew he needed to play at his absolute best to beat Novak Djokovic at Roland-Garros on Tuesday night and he did it

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic (Mao/Panoramic)

As he stepped onto the court for last night’s quarter-final against Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal’s mind was clear. Only his very best would do.

He found it.

The 13-time champion’s 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory over Novak Djokovic was a surprise, on paper, given the world No 1’s form in winning the title in Rome just a couple of weeks ago.

It was a surprise, too, in some ways, to Nadal, who had not been sure if he would be able to match Djokovic, having missed the first month of the clay-court season after fracturing a rib and then suffering with his chronic foot injury in Rome.

“Yes, my level surprises me,” he told reporters in Spanish. “But this court is special for me. In a sense you know there is no plan B. Either you have the level A, or you’re sent packing. Knowing that, it helps you to reach it.”

The only person who really wasn’t surprised was Djokovic himself, who has seen it all before.

“He was a better player, I think, in important moments,” Djokovic said. “Started very well. I didn’t start so great, 6-2, 3-0, double break down. I was gaining momentum as I was coming back in the second set, managed to win the second set, and I thought, OK, you know, I’m back in the game.

Nadal and Djokovic shake hands at the end of their quarter-final (Mao/Panoramic)

“But then he had another two, three fantastic games at the beginning of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level in those, particularly moments at the beginning of all sets, actually, except the fourth.”

Nadal: It was an emotional night for me

On the eve of the win, Nadal had spoken for the first time about the fact that he knows he may not have many more visits to Roland-Garros in him, that every match could be his last. Perhaps that contributed to his ultra-aggressive performance in the opening stages, especially, when he was thumping the ball with intensity that many wondered if he still had in him after a gruelling, testing five-set win over Felix Auger-Aliassime in the previous round.

Just a few days short of his 36th birthday – he turns 36 on June 3 – Nadal confounded expectations again, just as he did in the Australian Open final in January, when he came from two sets and a break down to beat Daniil Medvedev and claim a record 21st Grand Slam title.

That he was able to play another great match on the court where he has dominated like no other is no surprise. That he was able to do it with such a consistently high level, against the man who had previously beaten him 30 times out of 58, including in the quarter-finals last year, was simply incredible.

“In the end it has been a very emotional night for me,” Nadal said. “I am still playing for nights like today. But is just a quarter-finals match, no? So I didn’t win anything. So I just give myself a chance to be back on court in two days, play another semi-finals here in Roland Garros means a lot to me.”

Djokovic was asked whether he was surprised to see Nadal tearing around the court, having been in such pain in Rome.

“No, I’m not surprised at all,” he said. “It’s not the first time that he is able to, few days after he’s injured and barely walking, to come out 100 percent physically fit. You know, he’s done it many times in his career, so I’m not surprised.”

The emotional high of playing so well – Nadal hit a whopping 57 winners to Djokovic’s 48 and made fewer unforced errors, 43 to 53 – could be hard to come down from but Nadal knows how to manage his time, manage his energy and get himself ready for his semi-final, against Alexander Zverev, the No 3 seed who upset the new teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz.

Alexander Zverev celebrates after winning his quarter final match against Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz (AI/Reuters/Panoramic)

“If I am not playing good or if I am losing in that semi-finals match, not gonna be because I’m not gonna be focused on that semi-finals match, no,” Nadal said. “I have experience on that. I am not the kind of guy and player that emotionally goes high and low. I am very stable, I think, emotionally.

“I know how the things works, no? Is the moment to enjoy today, because have been a beautiful night for me, without a doubt. Very emotional one. But tomorrow gonna start thinking about things that I need to do to be ready for that semi-finals, no? The main goal is be focused on all the level that I have been playing today.”

If Nadal hits that level, or anywhere close to it, it’s hard to see Zverev or anyone in the bottom half stopping him from winning Roland-Garros No 14 and Grand Slam title No 22. At the age of 36.

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