The Spaniard, chasing a 14th Roland Garros title, battled his way to a 6-2 4-6 6-2 7-6(4) victory over the defending champion and world number one, in a thrilling confrontation of four hours and 12 minutes.
As epic and entertaining as it was, the match ended at 1:15 a.m. local time in temperatures of 12C, again questioning the wisdom of tournament leaders starting their nightly sessions at 8 p.m. 45.
Nonetheless, it was Nadal’s night, although there was so much seemingly in Djokovic’s favor.
After all, Nadal got injured, the match was late according to Djokovic’s preference, the Serb had beaten Nadal in the semi-finals last year and was determined to equalize his great rival on 21 Grand Slam titles, having s was denied the chance to break the Australian record himself.
But Nadal came out of the blocks and simply bullied Djokovic for the first 11 games, taking the lead by one set and 3-0 with a double break.
Djokovic, who saved six break points before succumbing to a seventh in a marathon opener of the second set, looked shocked, his eyes wider than the Arc de Triomphe.
However, Nadal’s intensity waned and Djokovic stopped the bleeding, leveling up before pushing 4-3 ahead with a hold in a seventh game that lasted longer than some sets this fortnight.
Djokovic duly leveled the game but, with the momentum all his own at the end of the second set, Nadal had recalibrated and ran away with the third.
The cracks showed as Djokovic angrily hit the net with his racquet, but he broke early in the fourth thanks to a disallowed line call which left Nadal protesting to the referee.
No matter. Nadal saved two set points on Djokovic’s serve and from 5-2 down, tied the set at 5-5.
A game that started in May was now being played in June. In a tie-break and Nadal took a 6-1 lead, Djokovic cut it back to 6-4, but a backhand winner ended the 59th meeting of these two greats.
Djokovic leads the head-to-head 30-29, but more importantly, Nadal still leads the race for Grand Slam titles and now has a golden opportunity to take two up front.
“A very difficult game,” Nadal said. “Novak is one of the best players in history and playing against him is always an incredible challenge. Today was another.
“The only way to win against him is to play your best from the first point to the last. A magical night for me.
Nadal will face third seed Alexander Zverev, who knocked out Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz on Friday.
“He was a better player, I think, in important moments,” Djokovic said. “He started very well. I didn’t start so well.
“I was gaining momentum, I managed to win the second set and I thought OK, you know, I’m back in the game.
“But then he had another two, three fantastic games at the start of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level in these.
“He showed why he is a great champion. To stay there mentally and finish the game the way he did.
The late arrival was not lost on the double champion, who added: “There are differences of opinion on the night sessions. I think they start too late, to be honest.
“But again, television decides. This is the world we live in. Broadcasters say it will be game night, game day. They give the money. They decide.”
Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic in late-night epic to reach French Open semi-finals
Source link Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic in late-night epic to reach French Open semi-finals