PARIS — On the sun-scorched clay courts of Roland Garros on Friday, Novak Djokovic did something only he and one other man, Robin Soderling, had ever done before: He beat Rafael Nadal.
He also did something no one has ever done before: He wore down the King of Clay.
The world No. 1’s 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2 victory, in front of a crowd of 5,000 strong who were allowed to stay on beyond the 11 p.m. curfew thanks to a government intervention, sent him through to the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Greek who ousted Alexander Zverev in five sets to reach his first Grand Slam final.
Djokovic-Nadal, Part 58, was as good as any of the previous 57 meetings, with the third set alone a masterclass in clay-court tennis — brutal hitting, incredible court coverage, courage under pressure and calmness even in the most trying of circumstances.
After 3 hours, 28 minutes, and with the previously indefatigable Nadal showing the first signs of cramping at the end, Djokovic stood strong to give the Spaniard only his third loss in 108 matches at Roland Garros.
“Definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland Garros for me,” Djokovic said. “And top three matches that I ever played in my entire career, considering quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where he has had so much success and has been the dominant force in the last 15-plus years, and the atmosphere which was completely electric. For both players, a lot of support. Just amazing.
“I was very happy that there was no curfew, 11:00. I heard there was a special waiver, so they allowed the crowd to stay. Just one of these nights and matches that you will remember forever.”
With the Tsitsipas-Zverev match going 3 hours, 37 minutes — Tsitsipas letting slip a two-set lead before winning 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 — the Djokovic-Nadal match began in the early evening, with temperatures soon dipping from their 29 degree Celsius (84 Fahrenheit) high.
And though Nadal began well, saving break points in the opening game and racing to a 5-0 lead, it was clear even then that the Spaniard’s shots were not quite rearing up as high as they would have done a few hours beforehand.
As the match wore on, Djokovic was able to begin dictating from the baseline, taking the ball early and moving Nadal from side to side, mixing in drop shots along the way. Djokovic grabbed the early break in the second set, only to be pegged back, but by now he was back into the match. Using his forehand cross-court on the angle, he began to pull Nadal out of court, testing his agility and speed to the very limit. With Nadal starting to miss, Djokovic held the advantage to level the match.
It was only the stunning defense of Nadal — and then his ability to turn defense into attack with his forehand up the line — that prevented Djokovic from pulling away faster than he did. After leveling up at one set all, Djokovic led 5-3 in the third only to be broken back. Nadal had set point at 6-5, only for Djokovic to save it with a drop shot. By then, the standard of tennis was on another planet, but once Djokovic won the tiebreak 7-4, it was an uphill battle for Nadal.
As the match wore on, Nadal’s grimace became broader, his struggles and fatigue more obvious. The Spaniard broke for 2-1 in the fourth set, but Djokovic easily held serve, broke back and was then almost untouchable on serve. He dropped just eight points on serve in the fourth set (including the game he lost). Nadal had nothing left, almost cramping in the final stages as his body nearly gave out. Djokovic, somehow, looked almost fresh at the end.
Beating Nadal on clay in Paris for the second time gives Djokovic a shot at his 19th Grand Slam title, but the Serb paid tribute to everything Nadal has achieved in Paris.
“It’s hard to find words bigger than all the superlatives you can think of for Rafa’s achievements in Roland Garros,” he said. “He has been the most dominant player of the Roland Garros history. He lost now three times in his entire career. He’s been playing here almost 20 years. That achievement speaks for itself. The number of wins that he has made on this court is incredible. Each time you step on the court with him, you know that you have to kind of climb Mount Everest to win against this guy here.
“It’s just one of these matches that I really will remember for a very long time, not just because I won the match but because of the atmosphere and just the occasion was very special.”
Nadal said Djokovic had been the better player and tried to put things into perspective when he spoke to the Spanish media.
“My opportunities to win here are not eternal,” he said. “In our sport, you must admit both victory and defeat. I do know that I can’t win the tournament 15, 18, 20 times. It’s not a disaster at all. I’m sad, I lost at the most important tournament of the year for me. But it’s just a defeat on a tennis court, you know, and tomorrow I’ll be at home with my family. That’s OK.”
So now Djokovic must recover in time to face a hungry Tsitsipas, who reached his first Grand Slam final with a hard-earned win against Zverev.
The Greek dominated the first two sets as Zverev, the runner-up at last year’s US Open, came out flat, seemingly affected by nerves.
“I can’t go down two sets to love against a top player like Stefanos and expect to win every single time,” he said. “The most important thing to come out of this match are the first two sets. I got to play better in those.”
The German hit back well, though, to level at two sets apiece and had Tsitsipas at 0-40 in the opening game of the decider. That proved to be the key game as Tsitsipas held and then regained his supremacy to run away with the set.
“It means a lot,” he said. “It was a difficult match. It was a match full of emotions, full of so many different phases that I went through. At the end it was just such a big relief I was able to close it in such a good way.
“I was able to deliver and close the match when I had to. I’m proud of myself. I actually love what I’m doing. I love that I get to play in this stadium. I’m grateful for every single match that I get to play. I’m obviously just blessed to have the opportunity to play against the best and test myself, something that I’ve always dreamed and wished to happen one day.”
Tsitsipas has his wish, but Djokovic stands in his way.