PARIS (AP) — From the moment the French Open draw was made more than a week ago, this is the match the tennis world has been awaiting: No. 1 Novak Djokovic against nine-time champion Rafael Nadal.
Except instead of the final, Wednesday’s blockbuster will come in the quarterfinals.
“The match that everybody anticipated or expected,” Djokovic said. “I’m not used to playing him that early, but that’s the reality and that’s a challenge that both of us have to accept.”
Djokovic, the runner-up to Nadal at Roland Garros last year and in 2012, advanced Monday with a simple-as-can-be 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 victory over 20th-seeded Richard Gasquet of France.
That concluded on Court Philippe Chatrier shortly after Nadal finished off the last U.S. man in the field, 37th-ranked Jack Sock, 6-3, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 across the way at Court Suzanne Lenglen.
Nothing that happened in either of those fourth-round contests could come close to equaling the news value of what Wednesday will bring — a 44th meeting between Djokovic, the best player in the world this season, and Nadal, the best to ever ply his trade on the red clay of Paris.
Djokovic has won 26 consecutive matches, half on clay. The Serb is 38-2 overall in 2015, and his title at the Australian Open in January gave him an eighth major trophy.
He needs a French Open title to complete a career Grand Slam; six of his 10 losses at the clay-court tournament came against Nadal.
No shame in that, of course. Nadal has won a remarkable 69 of his 70 career matches at the French Open, including the past 39 in a row. His nine championships (out of 14 majors in total) are more than any other man has collected at a single Grand Slam tournament.
The Spaniard’s lone defeat at Roland Garros remains a fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling in 2009.
Gasquet said he planned to watch Djokovic vs. Nadal, just as any fan would.
“What is crazy,” Gasquet said, “is that the match will be only a quarterfinal.”
So how did that happen?
Nadal has played poorly, by his standards, this season, coming to Paris only 25-9, so his ranking tumbled to No. 7, his worst in a decade. Seeded sixth, he could have been drawn to face any of the top four-seeded men in the quarterfinals.
Nadal leads his head-to-head series against Djokovic 23-20. But Djokovic won their most recent match, on clay at Monte Carlo in April, in straight sets.
It’s by far the most intriguing of the men’s quarterfinals. On Tuesday, Roger Federer will play Stan Wawrinka in a matchup between Swiss Davis Cup teammates, and Japan’s Kei Nishikori meets France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Wednesday’s other quarterfinal — and that truly is how most will refer to it — pits Britain’s Andy Murray against Spain’s David Ferrer.
At the start of the French Open, neither Djokovic nor Nadal wanted to discuss the possibility of meeting in the quarterfinals. Both said they needed to get there first.
“Yeah,” Nadal said with a wide grin after beating Sock, “now we can talk.”
“Probably the toughest quarterfinal in my career here in Roland Garros, without a doubt. But (it) is not the final, you know. It’s a quarterfinal,” Nadal said. “And, no, the winner of that match will not be the Roland Garros champion. … That makes a big difference. Even if it’s a special match, you know, (it’s) a quarterfinal.”
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