PARIS (Reuters) - Novak Djokovic did not want it, Rafa Nadal was dreading it but fans will be transfixed when the world’s two best claycourters face off in a seismic French Open quarter-final on Wednesday.
It will become the ultimate nightmare for one of the two gladiators -- both chasing records at this year’s tournament and both desperate to avoid an early flight home.
“Of course I don’t like playing a quarter-final against Novak, that’s for sure, and I hope that Novak won’t like playing me in a quarter-final,” said Nadal, who is bidding to become the first man to win the same grand slam title 10 times.
Ever since the draw pitted the two on a last-eight collision course, Nadal stayed silent on the topic.
On Monday, Nadal, who beat Djokovic in two of the last three Roland Garros finals, finally declared: “It’s the toughest quarter-final in my career here in Roland Garros, without a doubt. But is not the final. It’s a quarter-final.”
A match befitting the final of any grand slam stage has come two rounds early due to Nadal’s slide down the rankings.
While injuries and appendicitis kept Nadal off court during the second half of 2014, 2015 has not been a stellar year by his own high standards -- he arrived in Paris without winning a European claycourt event for the first time in over a decade.
Nadal’s woes meant he entered Roland Garros ranked seventh, and set him on the path to a horror 29th birthday date with Djokovic -- their earliest meeting in a tournament (not involving round robins) for eight years.
“I‘m not used to playing him that early,” admitted the Serb, who is chasing his own place in the record books by becoming only the eighth man to complete the career grand slam.
“But that’s the reality and that’s a challenge that both of us have to accept.”
Beating Nadal at Roland Garros is an achievement that only one man can boast of -- Sweden’s Robin Soderling who demolished the Spaniard in the 2009 fourth round.
That blip aside, Nadal’s record in Paris stands at an eye-popping 70-1 and a 44th meeting with Djokovic promises to be a monumental contest -- one that the Spaniard is ready for.
“I will pull out all the stops to win the match. I will fight to the bitter end.”
Djokovic also engaged in some fighting talk.
“He is the player that I have played against the most in my life. So I know what I need to do to have a chance to win.”
Nadal leads their series 23-20.
Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Martyn Herman