Paris, Jun 1 (EFE).- Rafael Nadal started strong and then rallied from a fourth-set deficit to defeat top-ranked arch-rival Novak Djokovic 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4) in the wee hours of Wednesday and advance to the French Open semifinals for the 15th time.
It was the players’ first meeting since the 13-time champion suffered a grueling, four-set semifinal loss to the Serbian great at last year’s Roland Garros.
In dominant form at the start of Tuesday’s night match, the fifth-ranked Spaniard won the first set handily and then broke Djokovic’s serve twice to take a 3-0 lead in the second set, including winning an extremely long, 18-point opening game.
Most of the big points were going Nadal’s way, although the Serbian gave his opponent a taste of his own medicine by getting one break back and then tying the score at 3-3 by breaking once again in a 20-point game that lasted 18 minutes.
At that juncture, the match appeared like it would easily spill over into Wednesday, and that is exactly what happened.
Although Nadal managed to hold serve to even the second set at 4-4, Djokovic clearly had the momentum and won another long game on the Spaniard’s serve to even the match at a set apiece.
A key moment in the contest then came early in the third set when Nadal staved off a break point that would have tied the score at 2-2.
After getting out of that jam, the holder of a record 21 Grand Slam men’s singles titles stretched his lead to 4-1 by breaking Djokovic’s serve for the sixth time in the contest and then wrapped up the set with two more service holds.
But as often happens in clay-court battles between these two all-time greats, the momentum shifted once again at the start of the fourth set as Djokovic broke serve in the second game and kept that one-break lead until he stepped up to serve for the set at 5-3.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion earned two set points in that game, but Nadal rode the energy of the crowd to yet another break of serve and then evened the score at 5-5 with a comfortable service hold.
Djokovic then seemed oddly out-of-sorts as the match approached its climax.
Instead of relishing the chance to silence a crowd that was clearly in his opponent’s corner, as he has done on many occasions on the biggest stages, the Serbian started playing low-percentage tennis and dug himself a 6-1 hole in the fourth-set tiebreaker.
Although he won three straight points with some massive shot-making, Nadal clinched the victory in just over four hours when he finished off a long point by striking a backhand down-the-line winner.
In an on-court, post-match interview, Nadal was asked about the support of the fans and his long history of success on Court Philippe-Chatrier.
“Well, of course, without a doubt, there’s no one other place like this one for me. It’s the most important court of my tennis career, the most special one,” the Spaniard said. “And for me (to) feel the love of everyone here in Paris, in the most important place of my career, it’s everything to me.”
But asked to promise that he would be back to play Roland Garros for several more years, Nadal, who has hinted at retirement due to a chronic foot injury, was non-committal.
“See you, by the way, in two days,” the Spanish great said, smiling. “That’s the only thing that I can say. Many, many thanks.”
Next up for Nadal in Friday’s semifinals will be German world No. 3 Alexander Zverev, who scored his first-ever Grand Slam victory against a top-10 player when he edged sixth-ranked Spanish teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (9-7) in Tuesday’s first men’s quarterfinal.
Nadal has a 5-3 career edge over Zverev and has won four of their five meetings on clay.
Their only meeting in a Grand Slam tournament came five years ago at the Australian Open, with Nadal coming out on top in five sets.