Rafael Nadal is on course for an incredible eighth French Open title after defeating great rival Novak Djokovic in an incredible five-set battle to progress to Sunday’s final. Nadal twice looked to be in control after winning the first and third sets but on each occasion Djokovic showed incredible fighting spirit to up his game and level up the match. It was fitting that such a memorable duel between the world’s current two best players would go the distance. And in the deciding set Djokovic appeared that he would become only the second man ever to oust Nadal at Roland Garros as he broke in the opening game. Instead, Nadal showed why he is the greatest clay court player of all time as he responded to take the deciding set after a marathon 16 games to take the match 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3-7), 9-7.
In a repeat of last year’s final on the clay in Paris, much was expected of the meeting between the two favorites to capture the title. And Djokovic once again had hopes of becoming only the second man in history to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros and in doing so go onto complete his career Grand Slam, having tasted victory at each of the other three majors. But just as 12 months ago, Nadal proved just too strong and can now further enhance his incredible legacy on Sunday. The 27-year-old will meet either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or David Ferrer in the final and will be a heavy favorite to beat either.
Perhaps winning the title this year will mean more than any other for the man from Mallorca. Having been out for seven months with a knee problem, Nadal’s comeback has been extraordinary. He has now reached the final of all nine tournaments he has entered since returning in February and will be looking for his seventh title.
After a strong beginning from Djokovic, his level dropped in the middle of the opening set and Nadal pounced in the seventh game to break as the Serbian hit a forehand long. That proved to be enough for Nadal to take the set and it appeared that the Spaniard would win the second too and potentially run away with the match when Djokovic surrendered a 30-0 lead in the fifth game to go a break down.
Yet, the world No. 1 was unwilling to go down lightly and showed his resolve to gain his first break point of the match in the very next game and eventually level up the set. And Djokovic wasn’t done, breaking again and rattling off four straight games to take the set with some grueling, exceptional tennis.
Indeed, such was Djokovic’s effort to tie up the match that he appeared spent at the start of the third. A slip in the second game was followed by a series of forehand errors as Nadal broke and went onto run away with the third set against little resistance. It appeared as if the fourth might be fairly routine as well when Nadal broke to go 4-3 in front. But once more Djokovic increased his intensity and his level of play to break right back as he tried to take the match to five sets. And having been broken once more to leave Nadal serving for the match at 6-5, Djokovic incredibly defied the odds again to deny his opponent with a forehand winner up the line and a clenched fist to take the set to a tiebreak.
The level of play was now at an extraordinary level from both players, but, in a match of momentum shifts, it was Djokovic who was on a high. A succession of sensational forehands allowed him to clinch the tiebreak 7-3 and take Nadal to a fifth set for only the second time in his celebrated Roland Garros history. Djokovic continued riding that extraordinary wave into the start of the final set and he grabbed a break to take charge in the very first game.
And Djokovic kept holding until a drama-filled eighth game. With Djokovic looking to move within a game of the match, having already been given a warning for a time violation, he was penalized for running into the net as he put away a simple smash and Nadal would eventually go onto tie up the set at 4-4. Holds were exchanged deep into the set until at 7-8 Djokovic let a Nadal backhand drop in before hitting two forehand errors long and in a blink of an eye one of the best clay-court matches of all time was all over.