PARIS (AP) — By the end of only the third five-setter Rafael Nadal has played in 112 career French Open matches, as the sun and temperature descended and the chants of “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” filled the evening air, the man known as the King of Clay showed precisely what this meant to him.
With every sprint-slide-and-stretch to reach a seemingly unreachable shot off the yellow racket of his opponent, Felix Auger-Aliassime; with every right-to-a-corner winner; with every well-struck volley, Nadal would hop or throw an uppercut or scream “Vamos!” — and, often, all of the above.
Nadal got through his first serious test of this French Open by edging No. 9 seed Auger-Aliassime 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 across nearly 4 1/2 hours of even, entertaining tennis in the fourth round Sunday at Court Philippe Chatrier.
And the reward? A tantalizing matchup against rival Novak Djokovic, which will come in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.
“Of course we know each other well. We have a lot of history together,” said Nadal, who hadn't dropped a set in the tournament's first week until ceding two against Auger-Aliassime, a big-serving 21-year-old from Canada. “Here we are in Roland Garros. It is my favorite place, without a doubt. I don't know what's going to happen, but the only thing I can guarantee is I am going to fight until the end.”
Nadal improved to 3-0 in five-set matches at the clay-court tournament he has dominated the way no one ever has dominated any Grand Slam event. Overall he is 109-3 here, and two of those defeats came against Djokovic, including in last year's semifinals.
Here is how significant their rivalry is: Tuesday's meeting will be their 59th, more than any other two men have faced each other in the sport's professional era. Djokovic leads 30-28, although Nadal has a 7-2 advantage at the French Open.
Looking at the larger picture, Nadal's record 13 championships at Roland Garros are part of his haul of 21 Grand Slam trophies, a record for men. The No. 1-ranked Djokovic, twice the title winner at the French Open, is just one behind Nadal in the total Slam count, tied with Roger Federer at 20.
“Obviously, a well-anticipated match, I think, when the draw came out, for a lot of people. I’m glad that I didn’t spend too much time on the court myself up to quarterfinals, knowing that playing him in Roland Garros is always a physical battle, along with everything else,” said Djokovic, who beat 15th-seeded Diego Schwartzman 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 earlier Sunday and has won all 12 sets he's played in the tournament.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Djokovic said about the prospect of facing Nadal, “and probably the biggest one that you can have here in Roland Garros. I’m ready for it.”
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Howard Fendrich, The Associated Press