Rafael Nadal demonstrated once again why he is the greatest player in French Open history by beating long-time rival Novak Djokovic in a late-night thriller to reach the men’s singles semi-finals, on Tuesday (31 May).
Nadal, going for a 14th title, started superbly and fought off resistance from defending champion Djokovic to win 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4) at the French Open venue at Roland Garros stadium, 16th arrondissement, Paris, France.
Nadal secured victory at 1.15 a.m. local time (4.45 a.m. Sri Lanka time) yesterday (1), after over four hours on court. The 21-time Grand Slam winner now faces third-seed Alexander Zverev tomorrow (3).
Germany’s Zverev, 25, reached the semi-finals for the second successive year after surviving teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz’s fight-back earlier on Tuesday.
Stephanie Livaudais, reporting on the Nadal-Djokovic encounter on the official French Open website yesterday said: “The 59th chapter of the most prolific Open era rivalry in men’s tennis came to a close in the wee hours of Wednesday morning in Paris, with Rafael Nadal emerging victorious over four sets in an instant classic against Novak Djokovic.
“Just a few shots could have made the difference for the defending champion, who held two set points on his own serve deep in the fourth set with the momentum – and the cheering fans on Court Philppe-Chatrier – firmly behind him.”
Lost to a better player
“He showed why he’s a great champion. You know, staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did,” a subdued Djokovic said during his post-match press conference.
“Congrats to him and his team. No doubt he deserved it… I lost to a better player today.”
Djokovic came into the match with a 30-28 lead in his head-to-head over Nadal, but trailing the 13-time Roland-Garros champion 2-7 on the latter’s happiest hunting grounds.
Trend turning to Djokovic’s favour
It’s a trend that has been slowly turning in Djokovic’s favour in recent years: the Serbian handed Nadal his only Roland-Garros quarter-final loss in 2015, and his only semi-final defeat just last year.
That he has been able to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two times – in 2016 and 2021 – during the Nadal era is a testament of his own tenacity and willingness to take on even the most difficult of challenges.
Had chance in fourth set
But he knows, perhaps better than anyone, just how quickly things can swing in Nadal’s favour on the “terre battue” or red-brick dust.
“He was a better player, I think, in important moments,” Djokovic said. “I was gaining momentum as I was coming back in the second set, managed to win the second set, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m back in the game’.
“But then he had another two, three fantastic games at the beginning of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level in those, particularly moments at the beginning of all sets, actually, except the fourth.
“I had my chances in the fourth, served for the set, a couple set points. Just one or two shots could have taken me into a fifth. Then it’s really anybody’s match.”
Straight to Wimbledon
Nadal thus advanced to a record-extending 15th Roland-Garros semi-final, where he will meet no.3 seed Zverev for a place in the final.
Djokovic, on the other hand, will get an early start to the grass-court season as he aims to put this defeat firmly behind him ahead of his next major title defence at Wimbledon.
Much ink has already been spilled in an attempt to sum up another classic Djokovic-Nadal clash – and what it could mean for their respective places in the GOAT or ‘Greatest of All Time’ debate.
But in the end, it was Djokovic who summed things up perfectly: “Had my chances. Didn’t use them. That’s it. Over four hours (of) battle, and I have to accept this defeat.”