PARIS – Novak Djokovic came back from a set in a spellbinding semi-final at Roland Garros to inflict only a third defeat on Parisian clay for Rafa Nadal, passing through 3-6 6-3 7-6 (4) 6 -2 in front of a loud crowd on Friday.
Nadal, who was aiming for a record 14th title at Roland Garros, won the first five games of the match as he seemed on track to repeat his beating from the Serbian in last year’s final.
But world number one Djokovic seized the momentum, winning the second set and then leading a thrilling 97-minute third set on a tie-break, after saving a set point.
The football-style atmosphere created by a crowd of around 5,000 inside Philippe Chatrier Court reached a crescendo towards the end of the third as the Paris COVID-19 curfew loomed.
Fortunately, the Parisian authorities saw the meaning and granted an extension of the 11 p.m. deadline, which means that a magnificent and brutal contest could continue to be honored by a live audience.
But there was to be no respite for Nadal, 35, as his seemingly inexhaustible resolve was ultimately shattered.
He hung on like the real champion he is, but Djokovic, looking fresh despite spending four hours with the world’s greatest clay player, ruthlessly shut down.
After breaking for a 4-2 lead, the end came quickly as he inflicted his first loss on Nadal at Roland Garros since beating him in the 2015 quarter-finals.
Djokovic will face Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final with the possibility of winning 19 Grand Slam titles, just one behind the men’s record of 20 held by Nadal and Roger Federer.
Both players produced almost superhuman efforts as a record-breaking 58th duel between the two Warriors arguably rivaled anything they had produced against each other since they first met in 2006.
It was only the eighth time in all of their games that the player losing the first set has won and Djokovic is now leading his 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 in 2015 his straight-set victory was slightly asterisk by Nadal struggling to recover from his injuries, this time he did it the hard way.
“First I want to say it’s a privilege to be on this pitch with Rafael Nadal,” Djokovic said on the pitch.
“The biggest game I have ever played here in Paris. Also the best game with the best atmosphere for both players.
“To win against Rafa on this court you have to play your best tennis, and tonight I played my best tennis.”
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