Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, outlasted Rafael Nadal, the “King of Clay,” in four sets, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2, in a match that felt like it should have been a final.
PARIS — “He brings out the best in me.”
That’s what Novak Djokovic said the other night about Rafael Nadal, the 13-time winner of the French Open and the man he would be facing in the semifinal in just under 48 hours.
Djokovic needed his best, and then some, Friday night as he beat Nadal on the court he has treated like his living room since 2005. The score, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3, reflected a wild match that produced some of the most remarkable tennis in years.
In beating Nadal at the French Open, Djokovic pulled off what known as the hardest feat in tennis. Nadal was 105-2 at Roland-Garros and had not lost there since 2015. Djokovic had his number that time too. There is a statue of Nadal outside Court Phillippe Chatrier. During this tournament, his fellow players speak of him with a kind of reverence usually reserved for legends of the past.
And that was how Djokovic spoke of his longtime rival moments after Nadal’s final backhand sailed wide.
“The first thing I want to say was it was my privilege also to be on the court with Rafa for this incredible match,” Djokovic said. “It is surely the greatest match I have played here in Paris.”
Djokovic will face Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in the final on Sunday. Tsitsipas will be playing in his first Grand Slam singles final. Djokovic will be playing for his 19th Grand Slam singles title. A win would bring him within one of Nadal and Roger Federer, who are tied with 20.
It would also put him in solid position to win all four Grand Slams in a single year, something that no man has accomplished in more than 50 years. He won the Australian Open in February and he is the defending champion at Wimbledon, which begins in two weeks. It is a title he has won five times, and he has won 12 Grand Slam titles on hard courts, including three at the United States Open, which will take place in New York at the end of the summer.
It was a match that had everything, even a looming curfew of 11 p.m. that threatened to send the crowd of 5,000 people home in the middle of an epic duel.
Instead, at the conclusion of the third-set tiebreaker, French officials delivered one of the great moments of the pandemic. As the set ended, an announcement was made that an exception had been granted and the fans could remain to see the conclusion of what would either be an upset for the ages or one of the great escapes in the history of the game.
Suddenly, a crowd of 5,000 sounded like one 10 times as large. There was chanting and dancing in the aisles — “Merci Macron” they sang, showing their gratitude to the French president — there were hugs and high-fives, which have been in short supply during a mostly miserable year and a half for sports and much of the rest of the world.
In truth, forcing the crowd to leave would have been cruel after what it had witnessed during the previous three-and-a-half-hours, including a 91-minute third set, in which Nadal seemed to have mounted the beginning of his great escape before Djokovic snuffed it out.
Matches between Djokovic and Nadal are unlike anything else in the sport. Every moment has a crucial feel to it because they both provide so little margin for error for their opponents.
Miss a first serve and the second one is likely to come back down your throat. Leave that deep volley just slightly too far inside the baseline and there’s an unseeable crosscourt angle they will find on a point that looked over just a second before.
Diego Schwartzman, who had lost to Nadal in the quarterfinals, tweeted a question as he watched: “Do we tennis players play the same sport as the two of them?”
This match, the 58th time the two have met, was a four-hour display of tennis one-upmanship.
A near-perfect, running lob from Djokovic was met with a wild sky hook overhead from Nadal. Forehands hit on impossibly tight angles were returned by backhands on even tighter ones. Nadal would hit a drop shot that would settle within three feet of the net. Djokovic would send it back nearly parallel to the net a foot closer. Violently slicing serves met untouchable crosscourt returns.
Nadal had the initial edge, surging to a 5-0 lead that felt eerily familiar to the start of his blowout win over Djokovic in the French Open last year.
Early on, Nadal returned two overheads then won a duel at the net. The crowd exploded as it always does when Nadal is doing his thing at Roland-Garros. Djokovic appeared staggered, but he dug in and began to battle, even saving set point after set point.
As the second set began, Djokovic grew more comfortable with every game. If the hardest thing in tennis is to beat Nadal at Roland-Garros, the second hardest may be dealing with Djokovic’s return of serve. All night long he pelted it at Nadal’s feet, forcing him back as he tried to push forward.
But with Djokovic sprinting ahead and serving at 5-4 in the third set, and needing just two points for a commanding lead, Nadal made two down-the-line winners that seemed to foretell a great escape. He broke Djokovic, and he had a set point two games later, but he frittered away a golden opportunity on Djokovic’s second serve. Then in the tiebreaker, he missed a wide-open forehand volley to give Djokovic a 5-3 lead.
“I had the big chance,” Nadal said when it was over. “I missed it and an easy volley in the tie break. These kinds of mistakes can happen but if you want to win you can’t make these mistakes.”
Nadal mounted one last attempt to rescue himself from the rarest sort of loss for him, breaking Djokovic in the first game of the fourth set and grabbing a 2-0 lead. He pumped his fists at the crowd, urging them to give him some intangible edge. Instead, Djokovic played his most dominant tennis of the night, winning the final six games.
When Nadal’s last backhand sailed wide, Djokovic looked to the sky, bent over and grabbed a bit of red clay and rubbed it on his shirt.
Nadal has made very few mistakes like that missed volley over the years at Roland-Garros. Djokovic said the pressure of playing Nadal on what he described as “his court” is unlike anything he has ever felt. “Each time you step on the court with him you know you have to basically climb Mount Everest to win against him,” said Djokovic, who was 1-7 against Nadal at the French Open before Friday night.
That pressure though is the sort of sensation that keeps both him and Nadal pushing each other on the court in their mid-30s, an age when tennis greats of a previous era have called it a career.
“It was one of those matches, that we really play tennis for,” he said. “It inspires us.”