Novak Djokovic Defeats Rafael Nadal in Instant Classic French Open Semifinal

Novak Djokovic French Open

Rafael Nadal has competed at the French Open 17 times since he first came to Paris in 2005. The Spaniard has won 13 titles in that span. Once (2016) he had to withdraw before the third round with a wrist injury. And only twice had he lost. Until now.

Novak Djokovic was one of the two men to conquer Nadal on the Parisian clay. He won that match in three sets in the 2015 quarterfinal, and went on to fall to Stan Wawrinka in the final that year. The other man to beat Nadal was Robin Soderling, who accomplished the feat in the 2009 fourth round. So the Spaniard always steps on the court at Roland Garros as a favorite.

Just about every time Djokovic and Nadal play, we are treated to a classic and incredible tennis. Notably, though, the last time they met in the French Open, we were not. In the 2020 final last October–when the cold conditions were expected to aid Novak Djokovic–Nadal easily blew the Serbian out of the water. As such, Friday’s semifinal had a bit of uncertainty. Nadal was playing better all tournament, and he had won five straight on clay. And yet, Novak Djokovic is still Novak Djokovic.

French Open Semifinal: Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic

First Two Sets

The match began as many expected, and as the course of the tournament seemed to dictate. Nadal wasn’t at his absolute best, but he was his usual solid self on clay. Djokovic, meanwhile, was playing pretty poorly, by his standards. The Serbian looked similar to how he looked in his previous few matches, which just isn’t enough to challenge Nadal.

Thus it’s no surprise that Nadal ran out to an early lead. We looked like we were in for a repeat of last year’s final. Then, Djokovic woke up. He began playing better towards the end of the first set, and Nadal’s level seemed to drop a bit. The change came too late for the set, and Nadal managed to hold from deuce at 5-3. The Spaniard claimed the first set 6-3, but momentum was clearly shifting.

That trend continued early in the second set. Djokovic picked up a break, but gave it right back with a poor game. From that moment onwards, though, this match became an epic. It seemed like both players needed a bit of time to warm into it. Once they did, both played tremendous tennis.

Djokovic did manage to earn another break a few games later. This time–though Nadal earned several break point opportunities, smart serving and strong baseline play kept Djokovic in front. He held, then held again two games later to close out the set. It was now best of the next three sets, and we were witnessing the best that tennis has to offer.

Third Set

The third set followed a nearly identical pattern to the second. Djokovic earned an early break, and Nadal broke right back. This time, Djokovic broke back immediately, and again he held. At times, the Serbian’s consistent depth from the baseline seemed to rattle Nadal, a rarity on the clay of the French Open.

One thing about Nadal, though, is that even when rattled or uncomfortable, he doesn’t let it affect him. He starts each point anew and plays it like it’s his last. Djokovic made him uncomfortable, but he kept plugging away. As such, it’s no surprise that when the Serbian served for the set at 5-4, Nadal brought his best tennis. He broke back with two incredible forehand winners to level the set.

Like Nadal, Djokovic is also able to shake off struggles and keep his level high. The World #1 saved a set point in the next game with an incredible drop shot, and his momentum carried into the tiebreak.

The tiebreak itself was an incredible display of tennis. It was highlight-real point after highlight-reel point, and every point seemed to improve upon the last. In the end, the difference was a Nadal put-away error at the end of a scramble. Djokovic threw down two big serves after that, and for just the fourth time ever, Nadal lost two sets in a French Open match. But could Djokovic win a third?

Fourth Set

As the fourth set began, tournament and local officials had another issue to contend with. The match had run so long already that the curfew in Paris was only 20 minutes away. Fans, understandably so, did not want to leave. And so, French government officials made the incredible decisions to exempt the fans at Roland Garros from the curfew. Play would continue with fans.

Nadal, as mentioned, never seems to have streaks of bad play. There was no hangover or frustration at losing the tiebreak. Instead, Nadal came out as strong as ever, and broke Djokovic to open the set with some aggressive returning. He then held from 0-30, playing impenetrable defense.

Djokovic wasn’t done, though. After an easier hold than usual, he started really pushing Nadal behind the baseline to immediately break. Following another easy hold, the match looked to be tilting towards Djokovic. Then, finally, Nadal’s level seemed to drop.

The Spaniard was struggling to make first serves, and Djokovic’s returns were deep and powerful. With an incredible return that painted the baseline, Djokovic broke to win his fourth straight game. There is always drama when trying to close out Nadal, even if he isn’t the superior player on the day. Djokovic learned that, as Nadal upped the pressure in the following service game. One huge serve and an incredible defensive points from Djokovic after 30-30, though, and the Serbian found himself one game from a tremendous upset.

Djokovic didn’t need to wait to serve again. Aggressive returns built him a lead, and he capitalized to break for the 3-6 6-3 7-6(4) 6-2 victory.

What’s Next?

Nadal still stands equal with Roger Federer with 20 Grand Slam titles. He is less of a threat at Wimbledon nowadays, but always can be. Likely, though, his next chance at Major #21 will be next year’s French Open, which he will obviously enter as a heavy favorite once again, as long as he’s healthy.

Djokovic has to now come back on Sunday for the final. If he can defeat Stefanos Tsitsipas, he will lift a 19th Grand Slam title, and only trail Nadal’s and Federer’s mark by one. With him entering Wimbledon as the favorite, we could be on the precipice of more history.

For now, though, Novak Djokovic has to cool down from winning one of the most incredible matches tennis fans have ever seen. It is only Nadal’s third loss at the French Open, which is historic enough in its own right.

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