For the second time in eight months, Rafael Nadal welcomed his greatest rival into his Parisian lair. In last year’s French Open final Nadal laid waste Novak Djokovic in three brutal sets, but the world No 1 had no intention of allowing history to repeat itself.
After losing the first five games, Djokovic stood up to the challenge in full, and the outcome was one of the greatest wins he has achieved in a career already bursting with greatness.
“Definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland Garros for me, and top three matches that I ever played in my entire career, considering the 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,” said Djokovic. “For both players, a lot of support. Just amazing.”
He did what so few have done to Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier, matching his level, equalling his desire and then making him doubt across a remarkable four hours and 11 minutes as he won 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-2 to reach his sixth French Open final.
With his momentous victory, Djokovic inflicted only a third career loss at Roland Garros on Nadal in 108 matches and he will compete for his second French Open title in addition to a 19th grand slam title, which would pull him to within one of Nadal’s and Roger Federer’s joint men’s record.
He will meet Stefanos Tsitsipas, who squandered a two-set lead against Alexander Zverev before demonstrating the full scale of his mental fortitude by recovering from 0-40 down at the start of the fifth set to reach his first grand slam final with a 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 win.
Tsitsipas barely held back tears as he digested the achievement of becoming the first Greek player to reach a grand slam final: “This win is the most important one of my career so far,” he said.
Nadal had arrived on court in combative mood. He spent the first five games of the match simply obliterating his forehand, striking it with an untouchable combination of pace, spin and depth, while his defence was impenetrable. Frustrated and outplayed, for a second straight year Djokovic trailed 0-5.
But this time stood up to the challenge. He finally began to catch hold of Nadal’s serve and he dragged it back to 3-5. Although Nadal did enough to serve out the set, momentum had shifted.
Throughout the second set, Djokovic wrestled his way to the baseline and he dictated an increasing number of points. His backhand was sublime and he pinned Nadal in his backhand corner while constantly lacing the opposite baseline with his depth. By the seventh game of the second set, the intensity broke through the roof but Djokovic held serve in a tremendous 10-minute game for 5-2, and he eventually took the second set.
As the third set began, Djokovic remained on top of the baseline, dictating so much of the proceedings. He dragged Nadal off the court with wicked angles and suffocated the Spaniard with his return of serve, generating eight break points in the set across four different games.
But each time Djokovic broke away, Nadal pulled back. From 3-5 down, Nadal returned to lead 6-5, saving numerous break points with roaring forehands and wrestling control of the baseline back in his favour.
By the time they had reached a tiebreak, Nadal seemed as if he may have the upper hand. Instead, Djokovic rose to the moment by playing a delirious tiebreak. At 5-4 in the tiebreak, Djokovic served an ace down the T and a desperate attempt at a drop shot by Nadal sealed his fate in the set.
If there is any true measure of this rivalry, it is perhaps reflected in the decisions made outside the court: as Djokovic went to the bathroom after the 93-minute tiebreak set and the clock ticked towards the 11pm curfew, according to Marion Bartoli on ITV the French prime minister Jean Castex was watching at home. He called in and issued Roland Garros an exemption, allowing the fans at the venue to watch history unfold until the end.
Nadal opened the fourth set by leading 2-0, but Djokovic refused any resurgence. Although Nadal fought until the end, Djokovic pulled him back and ensured that the ending was emphatic. He moved on to the final having won six consecutive games in the fourth set, emphatically toppling the king.
Tsitsipas, the fifth seed, who has won more ATP matches than any other player this year and marked himself as one of the best clay court players in the world, savoured his own exceptional win over Zverev.
“I’m proud of myself,” he said. “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. I’m able to be here and really going for it. I love that.”