Novak Djokovic came from a set down in a spellbinding French Open semifinal to inflict only a third ever defeat on the Parisian clay for Rafa Nadal, moving through 3–6 6–3 7–6(4) 6–2 in front of mesmerized crowd on Friday.
The two warriors produced superhuman tennis as the 58th duel between them arguably rivaled anything they had conjured against each other since they first locked horns in 2006.
Nadal, bidding for a record-extending 14th French Open title, won the first five games and looked on course to repeat his drubbing of the Serb in last year’s final.
But world number one Djokovic seized the momentum, winning the second set and then edging a pulsating 97-minute third set on a tiebreak, having saved a set point.
But there was no reprieve for the 35-year-old Nadal as his seemingly inexhaustible resolve was finally broken.
He hung on like the champion he is but Djokovic, looking fresh despite slugging it out for four hours with the world’s greatest ever claycourter, ruthlessly closed in.
After breaking a tiring Nadal’s serve for a 4–2 lead in the fourth set, the end came quickly as the Serb inflicted a first defeat on Nadal at the French Open since he beat him in the 2015 quarter-final.
Nadal’s record at Roland Garros since winning the title on his debut in 2005 now stands at 105–3.
Djokovic will play Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in Sunday’s final with the chance to not only add to his 2016 French Open title but also move to 19 Grand Slam titles, just one behind the men’s record 20 held by Nadal and Roger Federer.
Djokovic now leads his series with Nadal 30–28 but this win was perhaps the sweetest. While in 2015 his straight sets win was asterisked by the fact Nadal was struggling to recover from injuries, this time both players were at their best.