Paris, Jun 11 (EFE).- Serbian world No. 1 Novak Djokovic won a high-quality war of attrition against 13-time champion Rafael Nadal in the French Open semifinals, capturing a pivotal third-set tiebreaker before clinching a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2 victory Friday night by claiming the final six games of the match.
With the win, Djokovic pulled off one of the most difficult feats in all of sports: defeating the Spanish great in three out of five sets on the Parisian clay.
The 35-year-old Nadal has played Roland Garros 17 times and now has an incredible record of 105-3, with one of the losses coming to Sweden’s Robin Soderling in 2009 and the other two to Djokovic (2015 and 2021).
Since his first appearance in 2005 as an 18-year-old, the only other year the Spaniard didn’t win the French Open was 2016, when he withdrew prior to his third-round match due to a left wrist injury. And even with Friday’s loss, he still has a 7-2 record against the 34-year-old Djokovic at Roland Garros.
Everything seemed to be going to plan for Nadal in the first set, with the world No. 3 doing plenty of damage with his lethal forehand in racing out to a 5-0 lead.
But unlike last year’s final, when Djokovic lost the first two sets 6-0, 6-2 before starting to work his way into the contest, he pulled off a run of three straight games – two of them deuce-ad games – to gain some much-needed rhythm before Nadal finally clinched the first set.
A key tactic for the Serbian throughout the match was to open the court by using his crosscourt forehand to pull the Spaniard wide on the backhand side.
That play started to work late in the first set and continued to pay dividends in the second set, with Nadal forced to either take more risk than he would like with the backhand or allow Djokovic to take the initiative in the rallies.
Djokovic’s return of serve also improved in the second set, enabling him to break Nadal’s serve on two occasions and draw level at a set apiece even though the Spaniard put a high 73 percent of his first serves in play.
The contest didn’t really heat up though until the third set.
Djokovic continued to find chinks in Nadal’s armor from the baseline, with his superiority in the rallies reflected in a higher winning percentage on second-serve points (60 percent to 40 percent) in that set.
Even so, the Spaniard dug deep and showed his enormous fighting spirit to overcome a 3-5 deficit and level the set at 5-5.
Both players lifted their level to nearly impossible heights at that stage, with Djokovic winning one of the points of the match and sending the late-night Parisian crowd into a frenzy when he played a sharp angle off a ball that had landed short after clipping the net and then raced down Nadal’s reply and hit a backhand lob close to the baseline that the Spaniard was unable to return.
That gave the Serbian a break point with Nadal serving at 5-5, but the Spaniard managed to hold serve and then held a set point with Djokovic serving down 5-6 that he failed to convert due to a well-played drop shot by his opponent.
The set came down to a tiebreaker, which ended with Djokovic claiming five of the last six points and finishing off the set by effectively responding to a Nadal drop shot with a winning forehand into the corner.
The fourth set began after the fans were given the good news that, despite a nighttime coronavirus curfew, the French authorities would allow them to stay until the end of the match.
A five-set classic seemed to be in the works when the 13-time champion jumped out to a 2-0 lead, although that apparent comeback proved to be a mirage.
Djokovic continued to use his forehand to probe Nadal’s weaker backhand side and gradually wore down the normally indefatigable Spaniard.
Serving up 4-2, 40-30, Djokovic executed an incredible defensive lob and then finished off the point with a backhand drop shot that landed far out of the reach of Nadal and his tired legs.
Nadal’s first serve, meanwhile, had turned punch-less down the stretch, with the Spaniard winning only four of his 13 first-serve points in the fourth set and losing his last three service games.