Novak Djokovic ended Rafael Nadal’s French Open reign by winning four sets in what will be considered one of the best matches ever in the classic semi-final on Roland Garros clay.
The Serbian top seed Djokovic won 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2 over Nadal, the champion of each of the past four years.
Nadal, who was holding his title record, lost to Roland Garros for only the third time in 108 matches.
Djokovic, 34, must now recover to face Stefanos Tsitsipas in Sunday’s final.
The 22-year-old Greek reached his first Grand Slam final He beat Germany’s sixth seed Alexander Zverev in an epic five-set earlier on Friday.
Fifth seed Tsitsipas was certainly watching, as was the rest of the tennis world, as two of the all-time greats fought a brutal battle for the right to face him on the show.
“It was one of those matches that you can remember forever,” Djokovic said. “It was one of the three best matches of my life.”
The high-quality match was full of drama, suspense and twists and turns, as it was played in front of 5,000 fans, who were allowed to stay despite France’s 11pm curfew as part of coronavirus restrictions.
That decision came after a brilliant third set that lasted 98 minutes and saw Djokovic holding on to his nerves to win a tiebreak that seemed to put the entire match on hold.
Spaniard Nadal, 35, broke in the first half of the fourth set and took a 2-0 lead, but could not cope with Djokovic’s high level as he quickly won the next six matches to wrap up victory after more than four hours. Tennis Court.
Djokovic looked dashing as he raised his arms in celebration, then smiled wearily as he prepared for the winner’s on-court interview.
“To beat Rafa on this court, you have to play your best tennis, and tonight I played the best tennis,” said Djokovic, who can now win his 19th Grand Slam title, one behind Nadal and Federer’s record.
“It’s hard to find the words to sum up how I feel. You tell yourself there is no pressure but there is pressure. Pressure is a privilege – to test my game and my character in matches like this.”
Djokovic’s victory cemented his advantage in the head-to-head confrontation with Nadal, after he achieved his 30th victory in the 58th men’s meeting.
Djokovic maintains his composure as he recovers from the slow start
Beating Nadal at Roland Garros is one of the toughest tasks in the sport, but if anyone is going to make it this year, I feel Djokovic is the man to do it.
The world number one was to score clean and accurate throughout the tournament, moving well and playing hard on his way to the round of four.
Nadal blew Djokovic away on a quick start when they met Chatrier in last year’s final, and after taking two break points in the opening nine-minute match, he was once again able to make the scoreboard move quickly in his favour.
Unable to find his rhythm, or his touch with some early shots, Djokovic trailed 5-0 on another exceptional start that many weren’t expecting.
Djokovic saved the beagle with a suspension, settling further to get a break but unable to catch another.
The third seed served Nadal the second time out of the question, taking a seventh break point from a captivating first set that lasted nearly an hour.
The fierceness of the exchanges continued into an equally exhausting second group.
Djokovic was unable to cement an early breakout with a 2-0 score, but he came back in the sixth game with a massive fist as he saved three break points to break the defense.
The pressure was reported when Djokovic attempted to serve up the set, causing a double foul to give another back-breaking point to Nadal.
The Serb came off the hook when Nadal fired a stinging kick and saved another on his way to restore parity in one set.
The amazing third set turns the match into ‘one of the best games ever’
Then came the third group described by former professionals, veteran journalists, and famous fans as one of the greatest ever seen.
In a charged atmosphere at Chatrier, Djokovic broke 3-2 and then came under pressure from Nadal on the spot.
The Serb saved a second break point after 23 rallying rounds, then angered the fans by demanding more support.
However, he could not deny Nadal a third. Djokovic looked stunned when the left-handed hit a forehand to break the spot.
That left the score at 6-3, 6-3, 3-3, with both men winning 84 points each, after more than two and a half hours on the court.
The quality brought an incredible reaction from former world number one Briton Andy Murray on Twitter:
But spending energy in taking Djokovic’s serve again was at Nadal’s expense.
The 13-time champ surprisingly lost his next love serve, and although he created a break point himself in the next match, he was unable to convert the fourth straight game.
Tension was high on the field and in the stands, with fans regularly standing on their feet to applaud and chanting the names of both players.
After Djokovic failed to serve the set 5-4 and was broken, Nadal saved two more break points in the next match to advance 6-5.
At various points, both players released the tension with explosive celebrations.
“I’m speechless about what I’m watching,” said former British number one Annabelle Croft on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
The already hot weather rose another notch upon the change. Fans sang loudly in a Davis Cup-style noise as they enjoyed every moment as the 11pm curfew approached.
Djokovic saved a set point with a jittery shot to force the tiebreak, a fitting end to a convincing set.
But Nadal started the breaker with a double fault and then fired an inexplicably long ball at 4-4.
This gave the lead to Djokovic who, with two sets of serve, fired an ace and chased down a drop shot.
“I had a big chance when it was 6-5 on his second serve. That’s it. Anything can happen in that moment,” said Nadal, who has won all 13 of his previous French Open semi-finals.
Then I double-faulted and missed an easy shot in the tiebreak.
“These kind of mistakes can happen. But if you want to win, you can’t make those mistakes.”
“We both want the fans to stay”
After the first semi-final match between Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev lasted for more than three and a half hours, there was always a risk that the second match might bypass the 11pm curfew.
Djokovic and Nadal did not start play until 7:10 p.m. local time, and after both opening sets lasted an hour, the match was expected to stop until the fans were sent home.
Once Djokovic sealed the epic third set after 93 minutes, it seemed a logical point to clear the field. Then came another development.
Boos initially received an advertisement for the stadium – until fans realized he was telling them they were allowed to stay and the taunts turned to cheers.
“Given what we were experiencing in this match before the announcement, I think we both want the fans to stay,” Djokovic told Eurosport.
“We both had tremendous support. These are the kinds of matches we keep playing tennis for.”