Djokovic stuns 13-time champion Nadal in French Open epic, faces Tsitsipas for title

By: AFP      Published: 11:29 AM, 12 Jun, 2021
Djokovic stuns 13-time champion Nadal in French Open epic, faces Tsitsipas for title
Djokovic in action against Nadal.

Novak Djokovic handed 13-time champion Rafael Nadal only his third defeat in 16 years and 108 matches at the French Open on Friday to reach his sixth Roland Garros final after an epic showdown which even beat the country's Covid-19 curfew.

In their 58th career clash, Djokovic triumphed 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2 and stays on course to capture a 19th major and become the first man in over 50 years to win all four Slams twice.

Djokovic, the 2016 champion in Paris who had also beaten Nadal at the 2015 tournament, will face Stefanos Tsitsipas in Sunday's final in what will be his 29th championship match at the Slams.

Tsitsipas had earlier become the first Greek to reach a Grand Slam final with a 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Germany's Alexander Zverev.

Nadal, 35, remains tied on 20 majors with Roger Federer.

"It was a privilege to face Rafa in such an incredible match," said Djokovic after four hours and 11 minutes of intense action.

"Tonight it was my greatest ever match in Paris."

He now leads Nadal 30-28 in their career rivalry.

"It's hard to find words for Rafa's achievements at Roland Garros. The amount of wins on this court is incredible," he added.

"You have to climb Mount Everest when you meet him here."

It was Djokovic's second win in eight meetings in Paris with Nadal, a sequence which also included three losses in finals.

It was Nadal's first defeat in 14 semi-finals in the French capital.

"Probably it was not my best day today, even if I fought," said Nadal.

"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I had a big chance. There were some crazy points but there was fatigue there."

Djokovic finished with 50 winners; Nadal committed 55 unforced errors under the relentless assault.

Djokovic had two break points in the opening game of the first set which stretched to 10 minutes but was unable to convert.

Nadal made him pay, sprinting away for a 5-0 lead before the top seed got on the board.

Djokovic clung on, retrieving one break to get to 2-5 but Nadal eventually prevailed after one hour on court even if he required seven set points to edge ahead.

The old rivals exchanged breaks in the second and third games of a big-hitting second set but it was Djokovic who repeated the feat for a 4-2 lead before levelling the tie.

Twice in the third set Djokovic edged ahead, only to be reeled back in by Nadal who broke back in the 10th game as the world number one served for the set.

Djokovic then saved a set point with an ice-cool drop shot in the 12th game.

A 92-minute third set ended with Djokovic taking the tiebreak.

In a further twist on a dramatic evening, the 5,000 spectators inside Court Philippe Chatrier were allowed to watch the conclusion of the match despite it passing the 11pm Covid-19 curfew.

"In agreement with the national authorities, the match will come to an end in your presence," said a stadium announcer told delighted fans.

"Thank you Macron! Thank you Macron!" in gratitude to the apparent intervention of the French President.

Nadal then broke in the first game of the fourth set but Djokovic levelled for 2-2 and broke again for 4-2.

He finished it off on a second match point when Nadal hit wide and long to conclude a match on the same court where they first met in 2006.

- 'Intense' for Tsitsipas -

Earlier, fifth-seeded Tsitsipas ended a streak of three successive semi-final losses at the majors.

"All I can think of is my roots, a small place outside Athens where I dreamed to play on the big stage at the French Open," said a tearful Tsitsipas after securing victory on a fifth match point.

"It was nerve-wracking, so intense, I stayed alive. I went out there and fought. This win means a lot, it's the most important one of my career so far."

Tsitsipas, 22, is the youngest Grand Slam finalist since Andy Murray at the 2010 Australian Open.

"I don't particularly care about semi-finals. Might sound arrogant. I'm not trying to be arrogant. I'm just saying it how it is," said Zverev.

Tsitsipas will have his work cut out on Sunday -- he is 2-5 against Djokovic including defeat in the semi-finals in Paris last year.

‘One of my greatest'

Novak Djokovic compared defeating Rafael Nadal at the French Open to scaling Mount Everest as he hailed Friday's epic semi-final triumph over the 13-time champion as "one of my greatest victories".

Djokovic condemned Nadal to only his third loss in 16 years and 108 matches at Roland Garros to reach his sixth Paris final after a classic showdown which even beat the country's Covid-19 curfew.

Djokovic, the 2016 champion in Paris who had also beaten Nadal in the 2015 quarter-finals, will face Stefanos Tsitsipas in Sunday's final in what will be his 29th championship match at the Slams.

Tsitsipas had earlier become the first Greek to reach a Grand Slam final with a 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Germany's Alexander Zverev.

Defending champion Nadal, 35, who would have been the oldest finalist at the French Open in the modern era, remains tied on 20 majors with Roger Federer.

"It was a privilege to face Rafa in such an incredible match," said Djokovic after four hours and 11 minutes of intense action. "Tonight it was my greatest ever match in Paris."

"Definitely one of the top three matches that I ever played in my entire career," said Djokovic.

"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. Just amazing."

‘Life goes on, it's just tennis'

Rafael Nadal shrugged off his epic loss to Novak Djokovic at the French Open insisting "life goes on" as the 13-time champion suffered just his third ever defeat in 108 matches in Paris over 16 years.

Nadal, the defending champion and chasing a record-setting 21st Grand Slam title, refused to dwell on the consequences of his 4-hour 11-minute loss. "I am sad to have lost in the most important tournament of the year for me, but life goes on, it is nothing more than a defeat on a tennis court," said 35-year-old Nadal

"If everything goes well, tomorrow I will be at home with my family and friends, and then we will see what is next."

Nadal said he plans to be back in 2022 although admitting that time is not on his side if he wants to re-establish his Paris dominance.

Had he made Sunday's championship match, he would have been the oldest Roland Garros finalist in the modern era.

"Although it is a very important tournament for me, I am aware that you cannot win it 15 or 16 times," he added.

"Next year I will come again, God willing, with the belief and with the necessary work to be able to give myself another chance."

In their 58th career meeting, and ninth at the French Open, Nadal had looked comfortably on course for victory when he raced to a 5-0 lead in the first set.

But 2016 champion Djokovic, the man now responsible for two of Nadal's losses in Paris having also triumphed in the 2015 quarter-finals, hit back.

- 'Did not hurt him' -

As the match progressed into the later heavier, humid and slower conditions, the world number one flourished.

He claimed a titanic 92-minute third set which had seen him serve for it at 5-4 and then have to save a set point in the 12th game.

In the fourth set, he was 0-2 down before racing away with the next six games for his second win in Paris over Nadal in nine meetings.

That sequence also included defeats in the 2012, 2014 and 2020 finals.

"In the end, of course, if you win the third set you can say that was the key, because it changes the dynamic," said Nadal. "At times, my ball did not hurt him. You have to give him credit, congratulate him, but I know I can play better on this court."

When asked if he had faced the best Djokovic performance of their 15-year rivalry, he was adamant.

"No, that's what I feel. He has not faced my best self either.

"There were games on the limit, games that anyone could win, and today it was for him."

Despite that, there is a degree of evidence that Nadal is beginning to lose more epics than he wins at the Slams.

At the Australian Open in February, he lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas from two sets up in a five-set quarter-final defeat.