Through to a 15th Roland Garros semifinal, Rafael Nadal is progressing in a manner similar to his unlikely title run at Australian Open 2022.
Nadal overcame arch-rival Novak Djokovic in a typically intense four-set affair, one that extended beyond four hours – and into the early hours of Wednesday morning – under the Court Philippe Chatrier lights.
Alexander Zverev stands between the 13-time champion and his next step closer to tennis history.
That history? A men’s record-extending 22nd major singles title, and the chance to hold both the Australian and French titles this season – putting him halfway along to a calendar-year Slam.
“Tonight have been just a quarterfinals match, not the final. But still a super classic match and in a big scenario,” Nadal said after his 6-2 4-6 6-2 7-6(4) triumph over Djokovic, which he described as "one of these unforgettable nights".
“Between Novak, Roger (Federer), myself, we have an amazing story together facing each other in the most important matches for such a long time. So that makes the things more special and more emotional.
“There is always a conversation about the player who finish with more slams or who is the best of the history, but from my perspective doesn't matter that much. We achieve our dreams.
“We make history in this sport because we did things that didn't happen before.”
This time last year the calendar Slam conversation was centred around Djokovic, who stopped Nadal in a brutal four-set semifinal before going on to win Roland Garros.
And although, according to a head-to-head graphic we published prior to this battle, Nadal appeared the favourite when going by several relevant metrics, this perceived advantage diminished when we dug a little deeper.
Nadal led the series 10-7 against Djokovic at the majors – except Djokovic had won four of the last five of those.
Nadal dominated Djokovic 7-2 at Roland Garros – except Djokovic had won two of those past three meetings.
Nadal led Djokovic 3-2 in their past five matches – except Novak had won 15 of the past 21.
Djokovic had wrested control of the rivalry in recent years, after losing 14 of the first 18 matches; he finally surpassed Nadal in the overall head-to-head at Indian Wells in 2016 and entered this Roland Garros semifinal with a 30-28 advantage.
The ace up Nadal’s sleeve was his first-set record; he had won 100 of 101 matches at Roland Garros after taking the first set.
And against Djokovic, he was brilliant in the opening stanza, belting twice as many winners to errors and winning an extraordinary 80 per cent of points on his second serve.
His only loss of those 101 matches, after winning the first set?
It came to Djokovic in last year’s semifinals.
And despite Nadal jumping ahead 6-2, 3-0, 30-15, he could not suppress the world No.1.
Djokovic stormed back into the contest, adding sting to his shots as the sting faded from Nadal’s blows.
The Serb snatched that bruising 84-minute second set, shrugged off a lacklustre third, and surged again in the fourth.
A fifth set seemed assured, given the fresher-looking Djokovic led 5-2 and held two set points when serving for the fourth at 5-4.
This was the moment at which Nadal evoked that Australian Open energy.
He had entered both events following struggles with a foot injury. And he arrived at the later rounds of both tournaments after five-set victories over young Canadians; in Melbourne it was Denis Shapovalov in the quarterfinals, while it was Felix Auger-Aliassime in the last 16 in Paris.
Finding himself in a precarious position – like he was against Daniil Medvedev in the AO final – against Djokovic, Nadal raised his level.
The sting was back in his shots, the errors eliminated.
He reeled Djokovic in then dominated the ensuing tiebreak, sending the crowd into a frenzy – just as they had been in Melbourne.
“Of course we have a lot of history together, no? A lot important moments playing against each other. That's the true. Always is a special match (when I) play against Novak,” Nadal said.
“I become emotional because, of course, the last three months and a half for me, the only thing that I can say is haven't been easy… haven't been a fun three months.
“I am just enjoying every day that I have the chance to be here, and without thinking much about what can happen on the future.
“So just give myself a chance to play another semifinal here in Roland Garros is a lot of energy for me.”
Nadal in 2022 is a different beast to the 2021 version who was left broken after that semifinal loss to Djokovic in Paris and managed only two more matches for the rest of the season.
He has navigated physical struggles better this year – there was also a fractured rib sustained at Indian Wells, which sidelined him for six weeks – and he has kept alive his dream of another title run on his beloved French clay.
He takes a winning 6-3 record into his clash with Zverev, including 4-1 on clay, and 1-0 at majors.
“In the end it has been a very emotional night for me. I still playing for nights like today. But is just a quarterfinals match. So I didn't win anything,” Nadal said.
“I am not the kind of guy and player that emotionally goes high and low. I am very stable, I think, emotionally.
“Is the moment to enjoy today, because have been a beautiful night for me, without a doubt.
“But tomorrow gonna start thinking about things that I need to do to be ready for that semifinals, no? The main goal is be focused on all the level that I have been playing today.”