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Spain's Rafael Nadal gestures to fans to stay calm as they crush each other lunging forward when trying to get an autograph after his win in the third round of the French Open. Image Credit: AP

Paris: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal closed in Friday on a blockbuster clash at the French Open as both reached the last 16, while Carlos Alcaraz prepared to face the only man to beat him on clay this year.

Reigning champion Djokovic and 13-time winner Nadal are on course to meet in the quarter-finals, with the Spaniard seeded outside the top four at Roland Garros for just the second time.

World No 1 Djokovic strolled to a 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 win over Slovenia’s Aljaz Bedene and Nadal eased past Dutch 26th seed Botic van de Zandschulp 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.

“I’m always very motivated when I get on the court, with the desire to produce my best level each time. It’s not always possible to do it, but today it was very good,” said Djokovic.

Record-equalling Grand Slam title

The 35-year-old Serb is aiming to become the oldest men’s singles champion in Paris in the Open era as he chases a record-equalling 21st Grand Slam title.

Next up for Djokovic, who was also French Open champion in 2016, is a match-up with Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman, the 15th seed.

Djokovic said “it breaks my heart” to see former coach Boris Becker in prison over charges relating to a 2017 bankruptcy and hopes the German legend stays “healthy and strong”.

Six-time Grand Slam title winner Becker and Djokovic teamed up for three years until 2017. In that time, they won six majors, a run which included a career Grand Slam when Djokovic won the first of his French Opens in 2016.

“It breaks my heart to see him go through this,” said Djokovic. “Boris was always so nice to me and my family, and we had a great relationship throughout the years and achieved great things in this sport.

“I have been in touch with one of his sons, Noah, and asking if there is something that I could do to help. But it’s terrible. I just hope that he will stay healthy and strong.”

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Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates after defeating Slovenia's Aljaz Bedene in the third round at Roland Garros. Image Credit: AFP

World No 1 also said that he wants to return to the Australian Open next year after being deported from Melbourne in January after refusing to get vaccinated.

Since that fiasco, there has been a change of government in Australia and Djokovic is hopeful that a new administration may also mean a fresh look at his visa status.

“I would like to go there and play Australian Open. I don’t hold any grudges,” he said.

Nadal's record at Roland Garros

Nadal, the 21-time major champion, improved his record at Roland Garros to 108-3 after seeing off 2021 US Open quarter-finalist Van de Zandschulp.

He has now reached at least the fourth round in 17 of 18 visits to Roland Garros, with the exception of 2016 when he withdrew in the third round with a wrist injury.

“I think I played a good match against a good player. I’m very happy to win,” said Nadal.

The Spaniard had a break point for 5-0 in the third set, but Van de Zandschulp refused to roll over, winning four of the next five games before Nadal put away his second match point, having saved a break point in between the two.

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American Amanda Anisimova, a 2019 semi-finalist, advanced after injury-plagued Karolina Muchova retired in third set. Image Credit: AFP

“You always feel a little bit the nerves to finish the match, so I’m happy to be through in straight sets,” said Nadal, who plays Canadian ninth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime for a place in the last eight.

“I think it was my best match of the tournament so far for two-and-a-half sets, so I’m very happy with that.”

Anisimova, Gauff move on

Amanda Anisimova, the 27th seed and a 2019 semi-finalist, advanced to the last 16 as injury-plagued Karolina Muchova retired down 6-7 (7/9), 6-2, 3-0 after falling and twisting her ankle midway through the second set.

Last year’s US Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez beat Olympic champion Belinda Bencic of Switzerland 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, while Aliaksandra Sasnovich defeated three-time Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber 6-4, 7-6 (7/5).

Coco Gauff, the youngest player left in the French Open, made the last 16 with a straight-set win over Kaia Kanepi, the oldest woman in the tournament at 36.

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Coco Gauff eased to a straight-set win over Kaia Kanepi to make the women's singles last 16. Image Credit: AP

After saving a match point in a thrilling five-setter against countryman Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Spanish teenage star Alcaraz goes up against Sebastian Korda, the US 27th seed who won their meeting in Monte Carlo last month.

“I believe in myself, and of course I work hard every day,” said the 19-year-old Alcaraz.

“You have to have a good goal, good dreams. Of course, trying to follow your dream. Work hard every day. I think that’s the secret.

Mentally strong

“I’m still young, but I would say pretty experienced player now. I feel comfortable playing on the big stadium, big matches, playing in a Grand Slam. As I said, physically I’m strong. Mentally I’m strong, as well.”

Alexander Zverev, the third seed and 2021 semi-finalist, was also staring at defeat in the second round against Sebastian Baez, saving a match point on serve at 4-5 in the final set after fighting back from two sets down.

The German Olympic champion meets Brandon Nakashima of the US who is enjoying his best Grand Slam run on his Roland Garros main-draw debut.

It is the first time since Wimbledon in 2011 that all top 12 men’s seeds have reached the third round at a major.