For the second time in eight months, Rafael Nadal has welcomed his biggest rival to his Parisian lair. In the Roland-Garros final last year Nadal devastated Novak Djokovic in a brutal three sets, but the world No.1 had no intention of letting history repeat itself.
After losing the first five games, Djokovic rose to the challenge to the full and the result was one of the biggest victories he has achieved in an already great career.
“Definitely the best match I’ve played at Roland Garros for me, and the three best matches I’ve played in my entire career, considering the quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where he has been so successful and has been the dominant force over the last 15+ years, and the atmosphere that was completely electric, “Djokovic said.” For both players, a lot of support. Just amazing. “
He did what so few did to Nadal on Philippe Chatrier court, matching his level, matching his desire and then making him doubt for a remarkable four hours and 11 minutes as he won 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-2 to reach his sixth French internationals final.
With his memorable victory, Djokovic inflicted only a third career defeat at Roland Garros on Nadal in 108 matches and he will compete for his second title at Roland Garros in addition to a 19th Grand Slam title, which he would approximate one of Nadal and Roger. Federer’s common record for men.
He will meet Stefanos Tsitsipas, who lost a two-set lead to Alexander Zverev before showing all his mental toughness by recovering from 0-40 early in 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 accomplishment of becoming the first Greek player to reach a Grand Slam final: “This victory is the most important of my career so far,” he said.
Nadal had arrived on court in a combative mood. He spent the first five games of the game simply erasing his forehand, hitting it with an untouchable combination of pace, spin and depth, while his defense was impenetrable. Frustrated and dominated, for a second consecutive year, Djokovic was led 0-5.
But this time, he rose to the challenge. He eventually started grabbing Nadal’s serve and brought it down to 3-5. Although Nadal did enough to serve the set, the momentum had changed.
Throughout the second set, Djokovic worked his way to the baseline and dictated an increasing number of points. His backhand was sublime and he pinned Nadal in his backhand corner while consistently throwing the opposite baseline with his depth. In the seventh game of the second set, the intensity broke through the ceiling, but Djokovic held the serve in a massive 10-minute game for 5-2, and he ultimately won the second set.
At the start of the third set, Djokovic stayed above the baseline, dictating much of the procedure. He dragged Nadal off the pitch with nasty angles and smothered the Spaniard with his serve return, generating eight break points in the set over four different games.
But every time Djokovic escaped, Nadal backed up. From 3-5 down, Nadal came back in the lead 6-5, saving plenty of break points with roaring forehands and backline wrestling control in his favor.
By the time they reached a tie-break, Nadal seemed to have the upper hand. Instead, Djokovic jumped in by playing a wacky tie-break. At 5-4 in the tie-break, Djokovic served an ace on the T and a desperate drop shot attempt from Nadal sealed his fate in the set.
If there is any real measure of that rivalry, it may be reflected in the decisions made outside of court: as Djokovic went to the bathroom after the 93-minute tie-break and the clock turned to the 11 p.m. curfew, according to Marion Bartoli on ITV, French Prime Minister Jean Castex was watching at home. He called and granted an exemption at Roland Garros, allowing fans on site to watch the story unfold to the end.
Nadal opened the fourth set leading 2-0, but Djokovic refused any resurgence. Although Nadal fought to the end, Djokovic pulled him back and made the end emphatic. He advanced to the final after winning six straight games in the fourth set, flatly toppling the King.
Tsitsipas, the fifth seed, who has won more ATP games than any other player this year and established himself as one of the best clay court players in the world, relished his own outstanding victory over Zverev.
“I’m proud of myself,” he says. “I actually like what I do. I like to play in this stadium. I am grateful for every game I play.
“I am obviously just blessed to have the opportunity to play against the best and to test myself, something that I have always dreamed of and that I wanted to see happen one day. I am able to be here and I really go. I like this.”