Novak Djokovic has ended king of clay Rafael Nadal’s unreal French Open reign, producing an almost superhuman performance to finally knock out the 13-time champion in one of the game’s most spellbinding matches.
Amid a semi-final duel of almost indescribable brilliance, the world No.1 Djokovic set up a final date with Stefanos Tsitsipas by becoming the first man to beat Nadal twice in his Roland Garros kingdom, finally prevailing 3-6 6-3 7-6(7-4) 6-2.
Their 58th duel was another gladiatorial clash for the ages, so astoundingly good that the Paris crowd was even granted special dispensation to stay on after the city-wide curfew to watch the denouement.
There’d have been a riot if they’d been kicked out after an amazing third set which in itself lasted an hour-and-a-half and hadn’t been able to witness what felt like the end of an era as the 35-year-old Nadal was beaten at Roland Garros for only the third time in 108 matches.
“It was an unbelievable match, the finest I’ve ever played here in Paris,” Djokovic told the crowd.
The magnificent duel between two warriors with 38 grand slam wins even outshone a brilliant five-setter between two younger guns tipped to one day usurp them, as Tsitsipas was earlier left tearful after defeating Alexander Zverev 6-3 6-3 4-6 4-6 6-3 to reach his first slam final.
Tsitsipas, emotional at being the first Greek player ever to make a grand slam final after repelling Zverev’s stirring comeback, said afterwards he felt he was ready to tackle one of the giants.
But Djokovic’s epic win, after being battered from pillar to post in the opening set, in four hours and 11 minutes will make him overwhelming favourite to take a 19th grand slam title in Sunday’s final.
Nadal began in the same destructive mode that saw him destroy Djokovic in the 2020 final, racing into a 5-0 lead with the Serb, just as last year, contemplating the prospect of being fed a ‘bagel’ set.
Yet gradually finding his unerring accuracy, Djokovic battled back to 5-3 and saved six set points before Nadal could finally nail down the opener after just under an hour.
The world No.1, though, began to boss the match in the second set, playing at an extraordinarily high level – and it had to be as Nadal made every point a brutal exercise, even earning two break points at 5-3 down before Djokovic could level affairs.
The third set, featuring point after point of amazing intensity and more twists than an Agatha Christie novel, saw Djokovic save a set point with a great drop shot before Nadal paid the price for a missed sitter of a volley in the subsequent tiebreak.
Nadal hit back, as everyone expected, to race into a 2-0 lead but Djokovic, who had discomfited Nadal for most of the match by taking time away from him and using that rapier backhand to strike winner after winner, maintained his relentless excellence.