The dream quarter-final is perfect: Rafael Nadal followed Novak Djokovic into the last eight and will now meet the Serb for the 59th time. But the clay court king had to stretch himself mightily against Felix Auger-Aliassime.

The match between Nadal and Auger-Aliassime was already explosive in the run-up, because the Canadian is coached by Rafa’s uncle Toni. The old coaching fox has had a great influence on his nephew’s career and was Nadal’s coach for many years. And yet: It is of course almost impossible to decipher Nadal on clay, the man from Manacor has already won the French Open 13 times and has only suffered three defeats at Roland Garros in his long career.

But in the first set it looked as if Toni Nadal had given his protégé the right words on the court. Auger-Aliassime took a 5-1 lead and soon after closed out the set 6-3. Nadal was not yet in the match, he lacked focus. The evening before, the Spaniard had been watching the Champions League final and had seen his favourite club Real Madrid win the top class against Liverpool.

The 35-year-old seemed a bit inhibited in set one, while on the other side the underdog from Canada simply played strong. But then the favourite caught himself – and the Nadal express slowly started rolling: Nadal played his usual dominant topspin tennis on clay and won the match. The following two rounds went in the direction of the Grand Slam record champion with 6:3 and 6:2.

Auger-Aliassime strikes back

It looked as if the match had now turned completely around. But all those who thought so had made their calculations without Auger-Aliassime. The Canadian continued to play cheekily and full of self-confidence. Nadal was able to counter a first break by the underdog in set four, but the second break in this set was ultimately the deciding factor. Toni Nadal’s protégé won the set 6-3 and levelled the match at 2-2 in sets.

One break decides: Nadal in the quarter-finals

Of course, set five was also a game of nerves. Nadal has played a lot of matches like this in his career, Auger-Aliassime, who is only 21 years old, lacks experience. But that was not evident at first, the set was totally even, the Canadian was absolutely on a par.

But in the long run, the pressure of the Iberian became too much – the eighth game was decisive: Nadal, celebrated by the fans and pushing himself as usual, took the serve from his opponent for 5:3. The clay-court king ran down a stop, put the ball in the back and then set himself up at the net in jubilation. It was the decisive point of the match, because the 35-year-old then broke serve and took the set 6-3 – and with it the match.

This means a dream quarter-final between the two top athletes Nadal and Djokovic. The Spaniard once again put up a great fight, but he will have to improve against the Serb, who has played very well up to this point and especially on Sunday. Last year, “Nole” eliminated the man from Manacor in the semi-finals in an epic match. It will be the 59th duel between these two on the tour – Djokovic is just ahead with 30:28.