Paris (PA Media/dpa) – Rafael Nadal was beaten for just the third time at the French Open as Novak Djokovic won an extraordinary French Open semi-final on a Friday night of sporting drama at Roland Garros.
The great Spaniard went into the contest having won 105 of his previous 107 matches on the Parisian clay, losing only to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 and Djokovic in the last eight six years ago.
He had won all 13 of his previous semi-finals but, in a 58th match between the pair that was on a par with almost any that came before, Djokovic found the answers to the greatest challenge in sport to win 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.
It is the world number one who will take on Stefanos Tsitsipas – winner of a five-set contest with Alexander Zverev – in the final on Sunday, bidding for a 19th grand slam title and to become the first man in the Open era to win each title at least twice.
“The first thing I want to say is it was my privilege also to be on the court with Rafa in this incredible match,” said Djokovic
“It is surely the best match I have played here in Paris. It’s also the match with the best atmosphere, ambiance and energy.”
Nadal said: “Probably it was not my best day out there. Even if I fought, I put a lot of effort, the position on the shots hasn’t been that effective tonight.”
Trying to claim the outright men’s record with 21 slam titles, Nadal went in as a clear, albeit narrow, favourite, particularly given his drubbing of Djokovic in the final last October.
The first five games were a near carbon copy of that match, with Nadal finding the answer to everything Djokovic could throw at him and moving into a 5-0 lead, but from there it swerved off in a completely different direction entirely.
Djokovic not only avoided the love set but pulled three games back, sowing a few seeds of doubt in Nadal’s mind before the Spaniard took his seventh set point.
Those doubts were evident as Djokovic levelled in the second set.
A Djokovic break for 3-2 in the third was immediately snuffed out by Nadal but the effort of doing so took it out of the 35-year-old, who promptly dropped his serve to love.
Djokovic survived another long game to hold for 5-3 and was at 30-0 trying to serve it out but one moment of hesitation was all it took to give Nadal hope and back stormed the champion with four points in a row.
Both men were showing understandable signs of fatigue but somehow they engineered even more outlandish points, with Nadal fighting off break points to hold for 6-5 and then creating a set point only for Djokovic to save with a precision drop shot.
The tie-break was nip and tuck until Nadal, normally the most solid of volleyers, put a sitter long at 4-3.
Djokovic was not so charitable and, for just the fifth time at Roland Garros, Nadal lost a second set in a match.
The biggest cheer of the night came when fans, who had been expected to be ejected to comply with Paris’ 11pm curfew, were informed they could stay.
Nadal made a statement with a break to start the fourth set but it was Djokovic who was in control of more of the points and, for once, the champion had no answer.
Tsitsipas faltered but refused to crumble as he battled past Zverev 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 into his first grand slam final.
The Greek, who has won more matches than any other player in 2021, has looked like a man on a mission all fortnight at Roland Garros and he appeared to be easing to victory when he opened up a two-set lead.
But Zverev seized the momentum and turned the tables completely, winning the third and fourth sets as he threatened a repeat of last year’s US Open semi-final, when he came from two sets down to beat Pablo Carreno Busta.
“My dream was to play on the big stage of the French Open one day,” said the 22-year-old Tsitsipas.
“It was very difficult, very emotional. I went through a lot of phases of emotional breakdowns but this win means a lot. This win is the most important one of my career so far.”
By Eleanor Crooks, PA