Novak Djokovic pulled off one of the most difficult tasks in sports in what has been described as one of the greatest matches ever at Roland Garros, defeating 13-time champion Rafael Nadal 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 in the French Open semifinals.
Djokovic, the No. 1 seed, handed Nadal only his third loss ever at Roland Garros and ended Nadal’s bid for a 14th championship and a record-breaking 21st major singles title that would set the all-time record. It was the 58th career match-up between the two legends, Djokovic now leading the head-to-head 30-28.
“Just one of these nights and matches that you will remember forever,” said Djokovic, who trailed 2-0 in the fourth set before winning the last six games of the match and 24 of the last 30 points.
“Definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland Garros, for me, and (one of the) 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,” Djokovic said, “and the atmosphere, which was completely electric.”
It was Nadal’s third loss in 108 matches at a tournament he won each of the last four years, including by beating Djokovic in the 2020 final.
Nadal’s first defeat at the French Open came against Robin Soderling in 2009; the next against Djokovic in 2015. Both times, the player who beat Nadal, eventually lost in the French final.
“Each time you step on the court with him,” Djokovic said, “you know that you have to kind of climb Mt. Everest to win against this guy here.”
Djokovic, a 34-year-old from Serbia, faces Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 22-year-old from Greece in the final.
The fifth-seeded Tsitsipas edged sixth-seeded Alexander Zverev 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 earlier Friday to reach his first major final. It’s Djokovic’s 29th as he seeks a second title at the French Open and 19th major championship overall to pull within one of the men’s major mark shared by Nadal and Roger Federer.
The third set alone lasted 1 hour, 33 minutes, and an 11 p.m. nationwide curfew in place because of COVID-19 was approaching. Djokovic’s previous match had been delayed more than 20 minutes while the fans — limited to 5,000 people under coronavirus restrictions — was cleared out of the stadium, but an announcement was made Friday to let everyone know the government agreed to let them stay until the end of the match.
Earlier chants in French of “We won’t leave!” were replaced by choruses of the national anthem and cheers of thanks for President Emmanuel Macron.
Nadal noted afterward that playing in the cooler night air meant balls bounced lower, lessening the effect of his lefty forehand’s heavy topspin.
“That’s more favorable for him, the conditions,” Nadal said. “By the way, doesn’t matter. That’s tennis. The player who (gets) used to the conditions better is the player who (deserves) to win. So no doubt, he deserved to win.”
The intensity was palpable from the outset of the evening, and Nadal zoomed to a 5-0 lead, reminiscent of last year’s final, which he won 6-0, 6-2, 7-5. That was only the fourth shutout set lost by Djokovic in 341 career Grand Slam matches up to that point — and the first in a major final.