5:23 PM ET
ESPN News Services
PARIS — Sprinting, sliding and stretching, anticipating each other’s moves for four sets and more than four hours, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal produced a masterpiece in the French Open semifinals.
Djokovic stopped Nadal’s bid for a 14th French Open title and handed the King of Clay just his third loss in 108 matches at the tournament by coming back to win a thriller of a semifinal 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 at Roland Garros on Friday night.
In yet another display of tremendous tennis between the rivals, the match lasted for 4 hours, 11 minutes. After trailing 0-2 in the fourth set, Djokovic rattled off six consecutive games to avenge his loss to Nadal in last year’s final.
“Just one of these nights and matches that you will remember forever,” said the top-seeded Djokovic, who reached his sixth final at the clay-court major tournament to tie Bjorn Borg for No. 2 in the event behind Nadal (13).
“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. And the atmosphere, which was completely electric.”
The 34-year-old Djokovic will be seeking his second trophy at Roland Garros and a 19th major championship overall when he plays in Sunday’s final against fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is just 22.
It will be the 29th career Grand Slam final for Djokovic, and the first for Tsitsipas, who beat Alexander Zverev in five sets in a semifinal match earlier Friday.
Nadal had won the past four titles in Paris, part of his collection of 20 Slams, tied with Roger Federer for the most by a man in tennis history.
Nadal, a 14-time winner of the French Open who turned 35 last week, fell to 105-3 in his career at Roland Garros. His first defeat came against Robin Soderling in 2009; the next against Djokovic in 2015.
“Each time you step on the court with him,” Djokovic said, “you know that you have to kind of climb Mount Everest to win against this guy here.”
Nadal and Djokovic really riled up the raucous crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier.
Midway through the third set, Djokovic won a 23-stroke point with a forehand winner and windmilled his arms a half-dozen times, earning a standing ovation and chants of “No-vak! No-vak!” On the very next point, Nadal produced a forehand winner and screamed, prompting chants of “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” and a wave in the stands.
Nadal said the turning point came when Djokovic saved a set point while down 6-5 in the third.
“Anything could happen in that moment,” Nadal said. “I make a double fault and then [miss on] an easy volley in the tiebreak. … These kinds of mistakes can happen. But if you want to win, you can’t make those mistakes. That is it. Well done for him. A good fight out there. I tried my best and today was not my day.”
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 audience — 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! We won’t leave!” were replaced by choruses of the national anthem and cheers of thanks for President Emmanuel Macron.
Nadal recovered from the dropped third-set tiebreaker to steal a break at the beginning of the fourth.
Neither would give up or give in, but Djokovic broke back to 2-all and was on his way.
“Something clicked,” Djokovic said.
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 en route to winning the first set. It was 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.
Nadal fell to 259-7 in majors after winning the first set; according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Two of those seven losses now have been to Djokovic.
There wouldn’t be another Friday, because Djokovic made two key tactical adjustments — moving much further back than usual to return serve and deciding to focus on serving toward Nadal’s backhand — and quickly made clear this would be a classic between two of the greatest ever at what they do.
They defended in ways rarely seen. Found the right mix of power and touch. Conjured up impossible-at-first-glance winners that no one else would try, let alone successfully employ. Returned as well as anyone, combining to generate 38 break points.
It was the 58th matchup between the rivals, more than any other two men in the sport’s professional era. Djokovic now leads 30-28, but he trails 10-7 in Slam meetings and 7-2 at the French Open.
Djokovic won the French Open in 2016 and could join Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the only men to win each of the four Grand Slam tournaments twice.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.