Paris: The golden period of men’s tennis turned a little brighter on Friday night. It’s hard to deepen the impact at this advanced stage: After all the comebacks, marathon doubles and winners are under the pressure of nearly 20 years of close character study. But in their 58th meeting, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal still found something that spoke to their public, which were given the privilege of staying in their seats after the 11 p.m. curfew by the French authorities.
It was the right move on many levels. It may have prevented a riot, but above all it was welcome because clearing the main Philippe Chattier court would have stopped the flow of a great match which was partly outstanding due to the force of its tidal changes.
The third set was the best example, and one of the most compelling sets ever played at Roland Garros: 91 minutes of patience and pure brilliance reflected in both grinding rallies and bold swipes of the racket from all kinds of compromise situations. No two tennis players have been better at turning defense into offense, and no two men have played each other more often in singles than in the Open era.
Nadal won 5–0 after five games, but Djokovic returned with a deep focus given his intensity. Friday night didn’t produce the same screams as he did in another late night match on Wednesday, beating Matteo Berrettini on the same court.
Against Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final, Djokovic understood he didn’t have the mental energy to waste. He prevailed on Friday as he looked to return to steady flame and more disastrous down the stretch.
Nadal won no less than 73 percent of his first-served points against his first five opponents in Paris this year. He won 59 percent against Djokovic. Nadal faced a combined 22 break points in his first five matches. He hit 22 break points in one night against Djokovic, who can absorb momentum and read serve instructions like no other.
After his impressive 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 win, Djokovic has a chance to win his 19th Grand Slam singles title on Sunday.
Nadal and Roger Federer are tied at 20 for the career men’s lead and could be tied forever. But Djokovic is closing in and, as he proved again on Friday night, he is capable of beating men on surfaces of his choice.
He also holds a career lead on both: 27-23 over Federer and 30-28 over Nadal, which could have brought him back with a win.
Djokovic is now the only man to beat Nadal twice at Roland Garros, the first victory coming in the 2015 quarterfinals when Nadal was in a rare funk.
But Djokovic’s achievement this year is more impressive when you consider that Nadal beat him five times in a row on clay, including in straight sets last year’s French Open final and last month’s Italian Open final.
Although the mood leaned towards exaggeration on Friday night, they have played consistently high quality matches against each other (2018 Wimbledon semi-finals) and long matches (2012 Australian Open final).
Nadal had moments of greatness in this semi-final, but not regular greats, missed backhands by the bunch and lost his way into the crucial third-set tiebreaker with a double fault and a rare missed forehand on an open court. Volley.
“Mistakes like this can happen, but if you want to win, you can’t make these mistakes,” Nadal said with distinctive clarity and humility.
Certainly not against a champion of Djokovic’s caliber. The crowd, limited to 5,000, sensed the vulnerability and urged on Nadal. This was a sign of how deep his relationship with the Roland Garros public had become. When he lost to Robin Soderling in 2009, he was wounded by the hostility of the crowd. But he has earned her respect and some of his loyalty with his point-to-point commitment.
Djokovic also had his share of backing, but to reach 19, he still has one more handicap, and although he will be the favorite in the final, 5th seed Stefanos Tsitsipas should not be underestimated.
Tsitsipas, a greek Greek with a one-handed backhand and an all-court game, has already beaten Djokovic twice on Djokovic’s favorite surface: the outdoor hardcourt. Tsitsipas is ready for this late stage in a prime, and his purposeful walk between points is a hint at his inner drive and aggressive tendencies. He can win points by all means, but against Djokovic his best chance may lie in moving forward.
They played in last year’s semifinals of a French Open, which was staged in October after the French Tennis Federation moved the dates due to the pandemic. Djokovic won the first two sets, but Tsitsipas took the fifth set by force and then ran out of steam more than confidently, losing 6–1.
That’s the challenge against Djokovic. He has the endurance and resilience under the pressure of taking your best shots, finding solutions and imposing his will in long Grand Slam matches. While it is tempting to think that Friday’s effort of 4 hours and 11 minutes could weaken Djokovic, he has already proved that he can bounce back.
“This is not the first time I play an epic semi-final at a Grand Slam and then I have to come back and play the final in less than 48 hours,” he said.
He has until Sunday afternoon, and it must be remembered that Tsitsipas played a five-set semi-final on Friday after beating Alexander Zverev.
“It is time for me to show that I am capable,” Tsitsipas said of Djokovic.
The Big Three have carved an unprecedented path for the younger set, disrupting the normal cycle of men’s tennis. Federer is now a 39-year-old outsider, but still a contender for a quick court like Wimbledon and is already back on the grass in Halle, Germany. Nadal just turned 35 and Djokovic recently turned 34.
The Major, not the No. 1 ranking, is his clear focus and after defeating Nadal in Paris, Grand Slam thoughts are hardly out of the question. Djokovic once held all four major titles, but neither he nor Federer nor Nadal completed the Grand Slam by winning all four major singles titles in the same calendar year. No one has achieved it since Rod Laver in 1969.
No matter how much it felt like the final, it was only the last step to the final, and now Djokovic will look to beat the man who has won an impossible 13 to win his second French Open.