PARIS – Novak Djokovic rallied a set in a riveting French Open semi-final to inflict just a third loss on Parisian clay for Rafa Nadal, advancing 3-6 6-3 7-6 (4) 6-2 in front of the noisy crowd on Friday.
Nadal, seeking a record-setting 14th French Open title, won the first five games of the match as he looked set to repeat his beating of the Serbian in last year’s final.
But world number one Djokovic seized the momentum, winning the second set and then overcoming a throbbing 97-minute third set in a tiebreak, having saved a set point.
The football-style atmosphere created by a crowd of around 5,000 on the Philippe Chatrier pitch reached a crescendo towards the end of the third as the COVID-19 curfew loomed in Paris.
Fortunately, the Parisian authorities saw the sense and granted an extension of the 23:00 limit, which means that a magnificent and brutal contest could continue to be graceful by a live audience.
But there was no pardon for the 35-year-old Nadal, as his seemingly inexhaustible resolve was finally shattered.
He stood his ground like the true champion that he is, but Djokovic, looking fresh despite four hours fighting the world’s largest clay court, ruthlessly approached.
After breaking for a 4-2 lead, the end came quickly when he inflicted Nadal’s first loss at the French Open since beating him in the 2015 quarterfinals.
Djokovic will play Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final with a chance to advance to 19 Grand Slam titles, just one behind Nadal and Roger Federer’s men’s record of 20.
Both players produced almost superhuman efforts, as a record-setting 58 duel between the two warriors arguably rivaled everything they had produced against each other since their first meeting in 2006.
It was only the eighth time in all their matches that the player who lost the first set went on to win and Djokovic now leads their rivalry 30-28.
His celebrations after claiming victory were low-key, a far cry from the manic reaction to his win over Matteo Berrettini on Wednesday, a mark of the respect he has for Nadal.
While his 2015 straight sets win was slightly asterised by the fact that Nadal was struggling to recover from injuries, this time he did it the hard way.
“First I want to say that it is a privilege to be on this court with Rafael Nadal,” Djokovic said on the court.
“The most important game I have played here in Paris. Also the best game with the best atmosphere for both players.
“To beat Rafa on this court you have to play your best tennis, and tonight I played my best tennis.”
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