PARIS (AP) — Rafael Nadal knew this was bound to happen. So, too, did his uncle, Toni Nadal, who coached Rafael to most of the nephew’s men’s-record 21 Grand Slam titles.
Also well aware this moment would come, of course, was Felix Auger-Aliassime, the promising player who brought aboard the man known to many simply as Uncle Toni for some extra assistance last year.
Once Toni and Rafael ended their professional partnership, and once Auger-Aliassime hired Toni to work in tandem with full-time coach Frederic Fontang, they all figured that somewhere, sometime, their paths would cross. Now it’ll happen in the French Open’s fourth round: Nadal vs. Auger-Aliassime. Which in some ways is also a matchup of Nadal vs. Nadal.
So, the 13-time champion at Roland Garros was asked, might there be some awkwardness there? Probably no way you’ll be chatting with your uncle ahead of Sunday’s meeting against the ninth-seeded Auger-Aliassime, a 21-year-old from Canada, right?
Nadal shook his head and said he already had spoken to Toni straight after beating 26th-seeded Botic Van De Zandschulp 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 on Friday.
“For me, it’s very simple. He’s my uncle. I don’t think he will be able to want me to lose, without a doubt, but he’s a professional and he’s with another player,” said the fifth-seeded Nadal, who has dealt with chronic foot pain and a rib injury this season but also won the Australian Open in January.
“It’s not a story at all for me. I know what the feelings are that we have between each other. I know he wants the best for me. Now he’s helping another player,” he said. “But honestly, for me, it’s zero problem.”
Auger-Aliassime, meanwhile, resolved one little bit of intrigue, saying that he expected Uncle Toni to sit in a neutral spot in the stands, rather than being forced to choose between one player’s guest box or the other.
As for what sort of insights Toni might reveal about his former player to his current one, Auger-Aliassime smiled. Not too many unknowns about Rafael at this point, not at age 35, not after so many years on tour.
“I know him. I’ve seen him play. I know what he does well. We all know,” said Auger-Aliassime, a 2021 U.S. Open semifinalist who advanced Friday by defeating Filip Krajinovic 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2), 7-5.
“But nobody — Toni, Fred or me — has the answers,” he said.
On the horizon is the prospect that if Nadal wins, he could find yet another familiar face in the stadium for the quarterfinals: defending champion Novak Djokovic.
Both the top-seeded Djokovic, who beat Aljaz Bedene 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 on Friday and now takes on 15th-seeded Diego Schwartzman, and Nadal have won all nine sets they’ve played on the red clay of Paris so far. And both have ceded just 23 games total.
They have played each other 58 times already, more than any two other men in the Open era, and No. 59 might come next week. Asked earlier in the tournament about that “pretty good lefty in your quarter of the draw,” Djokovic played dumb and joked: “I don’t know who you are talking about.”
Also on their half of the bracket: No. 6 Carlos Alcaraz, a 19-year-old who leads the tour with four titles in 2022 and became, at the Madrid Open this month, the only player in history to beat both Djokovic and Nadal at the same clay-court event.
Alcaraz is now the youngest man in French Open’s fourth round since Djokovic in 2006, getting there with a display of deft drop shots and other slick strokes in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 victory over 21-year-old American Sebastian Korda under the lights at Court Philippe Chatrier. Alcaraz now goes up against No. 21 Karen Khachanov, whose 6-2, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 win made No. 10 Cameron Norrie the first of the top 12 men’s seeds to be sent home. Another Sunday match will be No. 3 Alexander Zverev vs. Bernabe Zapata Miralles, a qualifier who edged No. 23 John Isner of the U.S. in five sets.
Three American women reached the fourth round: 18-year-old Coco Gauff, 20-year-old Amanda Anisimova and 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens.
Gauff, the youngest player left in the field, was a 6-3, 6-4 winner against the oldest, Kaia Kanepi of Estonia, who at 36 is twice her age. Kanepi won the French Open junior title in 2001 — three years before Gauff was born.
No. 18 seed Gauff plays No. 31 Elise Mertens next; other fourth-round matches are No. 27 Amanda Anisimova against 2021 U.S. Open finalist Leylah Fernandez, Stephens against No. 23 Jil Teichmann, and Martina Trevisan against Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
Stephens arrived in Paris on a five-match losing streak. But she’s 3-0 on this trip.
“I don’t think you ever know when it’s going to happen or when it’s going to click. But I’m just trying to make the most of it, honestly,” said Stephens, the 2018 runner-up at Roland Garros. “Happy to put the wins together now. Didn’t at any other tournament, so God bless.”
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