The camera panned towards Rafael Nadal sitting on his bench, carefully placing his water bottles in a way that would satisfy one of his many famous in-game tics. It was late in his fourth round match against Felix Auger-Aliassime, with Nadal up 4-3 on serve in the fifth set.

Till then, the young Canadian had matched the 21-time Grand Slam champion and perhaps even looked like he was on his way to a famous win. But that’s when Nadal turned on the afterburners.

There was more pace in Nadal’s returns, more grit in his defence, more menace in his attack. And when he charged up the court to get to Auger-Aliassime’s drop volley on break point, there was the energy for the extra hop, more gusto in the punch through the air, more intent in his ‘Vamos.’

He had the break, and then he served out the match to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 and reach the quarterfinal at the French Open for the 16th time in his 18 appearances.

The highlight of the draw ceremony ahead of the French Open was the potential quarterfinal clash between Novak Djokovic and Nadal. And so it would turn out to be. Earlier on Sunday, the Serbian beat Diego Schwartzman 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 to keep his end of the bargain before Nadal ensured the duo will compete for the 59th time in a professional match.

On court, after his win, Nadal gave the crowd a promise.

“The only thing I can tell you,” he said, “I am going to be focused and try my best. The only thing I can guarantee is that I am going to fight until the end.”

And that’s the least that will be expected when Nadal and Djokovic face each other on the opposite ends of the red dirt of Court Philippe-Chatrier. ‘Least,’ because that’s the only way the two veterans know how to play when they face each other.

This is the most played rivalry in the Open era men’s tennis. The 58 meetings so far are split 30-28 to Djokovic. But 17 of those matches came at Grand Slams, where Nadal leads 10-7. And at the French Open alone, they’ve played each other nine times, Nadal leading 7-2.

Heavy conditions

On paper, the match scheduled to start under the Parisian twilight favours the 35-year-old Spaniard because it’s at his den. But the conditions, on the night, could suit Djokovic more.

As the temperature drops during the night session, the ball gets heavier and the bounce is lower. Nadal has prevailed against his French Open opponents 109 times – but a majority of them have been under warm day-time conditions, when the RPM’s of his groundstrokes cause the ball to bounce up high, not allowing the man on the other side of the net a chance to hit the sweet-spot at will.

“I don’t like to play on clay during the night, because the humidity is higher, the ball is slower, and there can be very heavy conditions especially when it’s cold,” Nadal said earlier this tournament.

But Djokovic likes heavier conditions. “All I will say is Rafa and I would make different requests,” he said.

It may make a difference, but both Nadal and Djokovic are experienced enough to be able to overcome the elements. Let’s not forget that Nadal won the 2020 French Open crown in October, beating Djokovic in the final under heavy pre-winter conditions.

French Open: When Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic took on each other at Roland Garros

A new chapter in the G.O.A.T era

Anytime any of the Big 3 face off, the whole Greatest of All Time (aka GOAT) debate earns a new chapter. This edition will be no different. But there will be a few firsts when Djokovic and Nadal meet on Tuesday night – which just puts their dominance into perspective.

It’ll be the first time in the Open Era that two players with at least 20 Grand Slam titles each will compete against each other – Djokovic has 20 and Nadal 21. It’s the first time two players with over 1,000 tour match wins will face off – Nadal has 1,055 to Djokovic’s 1,005. And it’s the first time two players with over 300 Grand Slam match wins will compete in a Major – Djokovic leads Nadal 327 to 302.

By the time both decide to call time on their careers, Djokovic is the one expected to lead all Grand Slam charts. He’s the youngest of the Big 3 and an all-courter who can win on any surface at his best. Nadal in comparison has won 13 of his 21 Majors on clay. But the Spaniard still leads the pack.

Djokovic may have beaten Nadal at last year’s French Open semi-final and gone on to become the first player in the Open Era to win all four Slams twice. But at the Australian Open, where the Serbian was infamously absent, Nadal became the second to win all four twice. With it, he overtook Djokovic and Roger Federer in the Slam race.

A set for the ages: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and 90-plus minutes of magic at Roland Garros

And Djokovic has made it clear in the past that he is, indeed, driven by statistics and records. He’s chased Federer and Nadal all his career, he won’t stop now.

Form at the French Open

Djokovic only properly resumed on tour once the clay season started. And now he’s won 22 sets on the trot, going back to his Italian Open triumph a few weeks back. He’s comfortably breezed through the first week of the French Open. As had Nadal, until his match against Auger-Aliassime.

The Spaniard did have a strong start to the season, but a rib injury, and the return of a recurring foot problem, has seen him in and out of action. But it’s on the greatest stages in the sport where he tries to give his best. He already sounded the war cry after the fourth round match, but later he hinted that the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry may soon be coming to a conclusion.

“Two weeks and a half ago, even if I had good hopes, positive hopes after Rome, I (didn’t even) know if I would be able to be here. So just enjoying the fact that I am here for one more year,” Nadal said, hinting at impending retirement as he has often done in his media interactions this year.

“And being honest, every match that I play here, I don’t know if (it is) going to be my last match here in Roland Garros in my tennis career. That’s my situation now.”

This is the quarterfinal everybody wanted. And whoever wins, there’s a chance that they’ll face another stiff opponent in the semi-final with the young sensation Carlos Alcaraz racing up the ranks (he faces third seed Alexander Zverev in the quarters).

Nadal will carefully place his water bottles, avoid stepping on the lines and famously yank his shorts before he plays a point on Tuesday night. Djokovic will come to the match buoyed by the prayer and gratitude (his daily ritual as he once revealed to Andy Murray), and the carefully measured diet.

And through all these years, they’ve both made their own luck on the courts.