Novak Djokovic’s Epic Semifinal Win Sums Up Surreal French Open

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the conclusion of their French Open semifinal.

As fans on and off the court witnessed the spectacle in awe, world #1 Novak Djokovic shocked reigning champion Rafael Nadal in an epic French Open battle that must be accounted as one of the finest matches of their long and storied rivalry.

Djokovic will now face Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final as he bids to recapture the Roland Garros title. The Greek, however, is a deserving finalist, recording a clinical victory over Daniil Medvedev in the quarterfinals before coming through a hard-fought five-set battle against Alexander Zverev in the last four.

An Eventful French Open

 It would not be an overstatement to say that this edition of the French Open has been surreal and eventful. The women’s draw saw a number of upsets and a few high-profile withdrawals. Naomi Osaka chose to pull out in the wake of the fallout surrounding her boycott of press duties, whilst Petra Kvitova was unfortunate to injure herself after tripping and falling in the media rooms. World #1 Ashley Barty, meanwhile, retired during the second round match due to a nagging hip injury.

This couldn’t have come at a worse time given that she was playing some great tennis this clay season before arriving in Paris. In the end, the highest seed to reach the semifinals was world #17 Maria Sakkari, who scripted a shocking upset of the in-form defending champion Iga Swiatek. That was far from the only surprise of the tournament.

Sakkari herself was ultimately ousted after a marathon battle with the unseeded Barbora Krejcikova, which ended 7-5 4-6 9-7 in the Czech’s favour after 38 games had been played. Krejcikova went on to meet the Russian 31st seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the final, with both players first-time finalists at this level. It made for a fittingly entertaining conclusion to the tournament, with Krejcikova winning the title after a three-set thriller.

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The men’s draw saw many rising talents and experienced journeymen strike gold playing those ranked far above them. Most notably, Jan-Lennard Struff upset world #7 Andrey Rublev on his way to the round of 16. The Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina went further still, carrying his good form into the quarterfinals where he finally came up short against sixth seed Alexander Zverev’s formidable power.

In a shocking development, Roger Federer left his fans dismayed when he announced an abrupt withdrawal in the middle of the fortnight. The 2009 champion pulled out ahead of his fourth-round match against Matteo Berrettini. The Swiss felt he had to pull out of the French Open due to fears of overstraining his right knee, conceding that his appearance in Paris was in part an attempt to garner as much Grand Slam match practice as possible before the impending grass season.

End of Nadal’s dominance

As the fortnight saw a string of ups and downs in both draws, Nadal’s serene dominance seemed to be the only constant at Roland Garros – at least until his semifinal on Friday. Typically, when he is pushed to the edge, Nadal bounces back stronger, just as he did in his quarterfinal against Diego Schwartzman when the latter halted his run of 36 sets won in a row at Roland Garros.

But Nadal was unable to use that momentum to his advantage in the semifinals. Instead, Djokovic, who showed exceptional resilience, stunned the tennis world with a remarkable resurgence to come from a set down to beat the great Spaniard.

Djokovic went into the match with a narrow 29-28 lead in their head-to-head. But Nadal has dominated on the clay and the very first game of the match saw Nadal fire an ace and land a couple of exquisite drop shots, signalling his intent early on. He backed that up by striking first with back-to-back service breaks, almost blowing Djokovic off the court with his pace and power, as well as reminding one and all that he was competing on his favourite stage.

But just when he had the viewers believe that a 6-0 bagel was imminent – not for the first time in their most recent meetings – the Serbian found a way to strike back and shrink the lead by three games, offering spectators hopes of an evenly poised first set. But, steadying the ship, Nadal managed to hold the service game to deuce, taking the set 6-3.

As the pair headed into a second set, Roland Garros stood witness to hard-fought rallies laced with spectacular shot-making that found the remotest edges and corners of the court. Following an exchange of service breaks, Nadal, unable to find a way past Djokovic’s concrete defense, committed too many unforced errors to lose the set 3-6.

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At one set apiece, the rivals found enough room to further raise the intensity, so much so, that the tennis was transported to a new dimension. There were hardly any free points or short rallies. The pinnacle was reached at 3-3, 30-30, when Nadal fired a stunning forehand winner that defied textbook tennis. This was the longest game of the set, and the set would be the longest of the match. However, this was also the juncture when the 13-time champion lost just enough focus for errors to creep in.

A string of breaks were exchanged as the emotions reached fever pitch. The crowd was ecstatic at every point either player won, relishing every moment of the epic. Djokovic perhaps had the better of it, twice leading by a break, but proved unable to take his chances before holding off a late Nadal charge – saving a set point with a well-judged drop shot – to reach the relative safety of a tiebreak.

There, Djokovic stole an early march thanks to a double fault and a match-turning missed volley from the Spaniard, rare low points in a set that rightly garnered praise from all corners of the internet. Djokovic sealed the set when a Nadal lob drifted wide and, despite going down an early break in the fourth, the Serbian then wrapped up the match quickly, taking the fourth set 6-2.

In scripting what is perhaps the greatest upset in the last six years, Djokovic secured a chance to further embellish his legacy at the expense of his great rival. But regardless of the result, the quality of shot-making and court-coverage from both legends of the modern game has unquestionably set an almost unassailable benchmark for generations to come.

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