Novak Djokovic dashed Rafael Nadal’s hopes of winning a record 21st Grand Slam title and his 14th French Open after the world No. 1 overcame the Spaniard 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 in a four-hour-22-minute semi-final that was replete with moments of brilliance as well as errors.
Nadal, who went into the match with 105-2 (win-loss) record and with a 7-1 record against the Serb, was the outright favourite to win the match and set up a final clash with Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas. For, he had lost only one set in this year’s tournament prior to Friday’s semi-final.
But the chinks in his game began to show early. The first set, though won by the Spanish world No. 3 with a 6-3 margin, went on for 61 minutes. Nadal saved a couple of break-points in the very first game of the match and then went 5-0 up before Djokovic fought back to show that he is up for the fight and won’t take the Nadal challenge lying down.
The Serb, who was also the last player to beat Nadal in the French Open back in the 2015 quarter-finals, then took the second set. The seventh game was the heart of the set, indeed the match, as neither gave an inch.
Djokovic played some beautiful shots, some cross-courts even as he made some glaring errors. But the game that went on for over 10 minutes saw Nadal hitting the ball outside the court on number of occasions and being forced to commit errors. The ninth game too stretched for long before the Serb sealed it. He won the set 6-3.
The third set, which saw heavy duty and sparring tennis, went into a tie-breaker after Djokovic had broken a tired looking Nadal in the fifth game. Nadal broke back in the sixth game.
The see-saw battle went on before the top seed sealed the set 7-4 in tie-break and took a 2-1 lead after three sets.
The fourth set saw unrelenting Nadal breaking Djokovic but then the Serb won the final six games to seal a place in the final against Tsitsipas.
While Djokovic won 64 percent points on his first serve and 55 percent on second serve, Nadal won 59 percent on first and 49 percent on second. The Serb converted eight of the 22 break-points he got as against six out of 16 by Nadal.
The biggest difference though were the double faults. Nadal committed eight of them against Djokovic’s three.
Between 2005, when he won his first French Open and 2020 when he won his last of the 13, Nadal had not won the title at Roland Garros only on three occasions — in 2009, when he lost to Robin Soderling in the fourth round; in 2015, when he lost to Djokovic in the quarter-finals and in 2016 when he had to pull out of the third round due to injury.
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic called Friday’s semi-final, in which he consigned 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal to only his third defeat in 108 matches at Roland Garros, the best and the most beautiful game he has played in Paris.
“It was for sure the most beautiful match I’ve played here in Paris,” Djokovic said on court after the match.
“You tell yourself there is no pressure. But there is a lot of pressure, trust me,” he added.
Djokovic lost the first set 3-6 and history between the two suggested that he would most likely lose the match. In the matches between these two, the winner of the first set has claimed the match 50 out of 57 times.
But Djokovic defied history, winning the next three sets to set up title clash with Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in the final.
“I was feeling good mentally, physically. I was motivated. I had a really clear plan in tactics, what I needed to do in order to perform better than I [did] in last year’s [French Open] final (in which he was beaten in straight sets),” Djokovic said.
“The beginning of the match was kind of resembling last year’s final, but I just managed to get myself back into the first set. Even though I lost it, I felt like 3-6 down, I found my game,” added the Serb.
“Even though I did not have such a great start, I was not too nervous, because I felt like I was hitting the ball very well,” Djokovic said before adding that he was ready for the spin the Spanish applies in his forehand.
“It was just a matter of me working my way into the match and adjusting to his ball, which is completely different than any other player’s ball. The amount of spin he plays with from the forehand corner, it is tremendous. But I was ready.”
The Serb world No. 1, who will be eyeing his 19th Grand Slam title, to come within one Grand Slam title of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who both have 20 titles, called it his best match at Roland and one of the three of his career
“Definitely, the best match that I was a part of in Roland Garros for me and the top three matches that I have ever played in my entire career. Considering the quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where he has had so much success and has been a dominant force in the last 15-plus years and the atmosphere which was completely electric,” said Djokovic.
The 34-year-old said he will be able to enjoy this victory only a little and not very much because he faces Tsitsipas after a day’s gap on Sunday in the final.
“I enjoyed this victory a little bit. I don’t have much time. I think I deserve after this big win to relax a little bit without thinking about the next opponent even though it is the finals of a Grand Slam but I have time to think about him (Stefanos Tsitsipas) maybe tomorrow. Tomorrow is the second part of the day. Right now, it’s all about resting and hopefully being able to be fit to compete,” he added.
World No. 3 Rafael Nadal, whose unbeaten streak at French Open spread over last six years was broken in Friday’s semi-finals, said world No. 1 Novak Djokovic got used to cooler Paris conditions at night better even as he himself could not produce the top level tennis expected of him.
“That’s sport. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I tried to give my best,” Nadal said after the match before adding that he could not convert the chances he got.
“I had a big chance with set point, 6-5, second serve in the third set. That is it. Anything could happen in that moment. Then I made a double fault, missed an easy volley in the tie-break. But it’s true that there were crazy points out there. The fatigue is there, too. These kind of mistakes can happen,” he added.
As the match extended into late evening and night, Nadal’s topspin shots that were bouncing high off the clay court began bouncing lower as conditions got cooler making it easier for Djokovic.
Nadal though refused to term it as an excuse and instead felt that Djokovic had got used to the conditions better.
“It does not matter. That is tennis. The player who gets used to the conditions better is the player who deserves to win. So no doubt he deserved to win,” said the world No. 3.
The Spaniard admitted he was not at his best. He made eight double faults against Djokovic’s three.
“But if you want to win, you can not make these mistakes. So that is it. Well done for him. It was a good fight out there. I tried my best, and today was not my day.
“It probably was not my best day out there. Even if I fought, put a lot of effort, the position on the shots were not that effective tonight,” Nadal said.
“Against a player like him who takes the ball early, you are not able to take him out of his positions, then it is very difficult.”