Paris: It is considered the toughest task in all of tennis - maybe in all of sport: defeating Rafael Nadal at Roland-Garros.
After four hours of gruelling tennis on Court Phillipe-Chatrier on Friday night in Paris, consider it done.
Novak Djokovic owned the moment and the mission, handing the third-seeded Nadal a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 defeat to snap the Spaniard's 35-match winning streak in Paris and set a date with Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in Sunday’s final.
Djokovic becomes the first man in history to defeat Nadal twice at Roland-Garros - 13-time champion Nadal now owns a lifetime record of 105-3 at his favourite event.
“Each time you step on the court with him, you know that you have to kind of climb Mount Everest to win against this guy here,” Djokovic said after the four hour and 11-minute tussle.
Nadal had won seven of his previous eight matches against Djokovic in Paris, including a 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 drubbing in the 2020 final, so when the Mallorcan raced out to a 5-0 lead in the opening set it looked as if he was off to the races.
But Djokovic didn't push the panic button. He squeaked out three games before the set’s conclusion, and later said that he felt confident, despite the early deficit.
“Even though I didn't have such a great start, I was not too nervous because I felt like I was hitting the ball very well,” said the 34-year-old Serb. “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, I mean, it's tremendous.”
Nadal saw Djokovic gradually come back into the competition, but the Spaniard still had his chances to take a commanding two-sets-to-one lead near the conclusion of an epic 97-minute third set.
On this night the critical points would go to Djokovic.
“I had the big chance with set point, 6-5, second serve,” Nadal later lamented. “That's it. Anything could happen in that moment. Then I make a double fault, easy volley in the tiebreak.”
Djokovic has cracked his share of milestones over the course of his illustrious career. But Friday night’s win is one for the top shelf in his opinion.
“Definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland-Garros for me, and 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,” said the 18-time major champion.
He also enjoyed the supercharged atmosphere of the crowd, which was granted permission to stay for the full contest, despite the 11pm coronavirus curfew in place in Paris.
“For both players, a lot of support. Just amazing,” Djokovic said. “Just one of these nights and matches that you will remember forever.”
With a victory in Sunday's final all that is keeping Djokovic from becoming the first man in the Open Era to win all four Grand Slams multiple times, the Serb seemed confident in his ability to make a full recovery, even if he had just spent over four hours climbing tennis’ tallest mountain.
“It's not the first time that I play an epic semi-final in a Grand Slam and then I have to come back in less than 48 hours and play finals,” he pointed out. “My recovery abilities are pretty good, I must say, throughout my career.”
Djokovic owns a 5-2 lifetime record against the 22-year-old Tsitsipas, and has won their last two meetings, which both took place on clay.
But he knows he’ll be in for a fight after being forced to go five sets with Tsitsipas in the semi-finals last autumn at Roland-Garros.
It’s a fight he’ll be ready for.
“We played an epic five-setter last year in the semis here,” Djokovic said of Tsitsipas, who is the tour's match-wins leader this season with an impressive 39-8 record.
“I know it's going to be another tough one. I'm hoping I can recharge my batteries as much as I can because I'm going to need some power and energy for that one.”