Novak Djokovic compared defeating Rafael Nadal at the French Open to scaling Mount Everest as he hailed Friday’s epic semi-final triumph over the 13-time champion as “one of my greatest victories”.
Djokovic condemned Nadal to only his third loss in 16 years and 108 matches at Roland Garros to reach his sixth Paris final after a classic showdown which even beat the country’s COVID-19 curfew.
In their 58th career clash, Djokovic triumphed 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2 and stays on course to capture a 19th major and become the first man in over 50 years to win all four Slams twice.
Djokovic, the 2016 champion in Paris who had also beaten Nadal in the 2015 quarter-finals, will face Stefanos Tsitsipas in Sunday’s final in what will be his 29th championship match at the Slams.
Tsitsipas had earlier become the first Greek to reach a Grand Slam final with a 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Germany’s Alexander Zverev.
Defending champion Nadal, 35, who would have been the oldest finalist at the French Open in the modern era, remains tied on 20 majors with Roger Federer.
“It was a privilege to face Rafa in such an incredible match,” said Djokovic after four hours and 11 minutes of intense action.
“Tonight it was my greatest ever match in Paris.”
It was his second win in nine meetings at Roland Garros with Nadal, a sequence which also included devastating losses in the 2012, 2014 and 2020 finals.
“Definitely one of the top three matches that I ever played in my entire career,” said Djokovic.
“Considering the quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where he has had so much success and has been the dominant force in the last 15-plus years, and the atmosphere which was completely electric. Just amazing.”
It was Nadal’s first defeat in 14 semi-finals in the French capital.
“Probably it was not my best day today, even if I fought,” said Nadal.
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I had a big chance. There were some crazy points but there was fatigue there.”
Djokovic finished with 50 winners; Nadal committed 55 unforced errors under a relentless assault.
“It’s hard to find words bigger than all the superlatives you can think of for Rafa’s achievements in Roland Garros,” added 34-year-old Djokovic who now leads their series 30-28.
“Each time you step on the court with him, you know that you have to kind of climb Mount Everest to win against this guy here.”
Nadal bemoaned the humid conditions which became heavier and slower as the evening progressed.
“We had been playing with very warm and high bounces. During the night the situation goes a little bit the other way,” he said.
“So the bounce is a little less. The ball gets less top-spin. That’s more favourable for him.”
Djokovic had two break points in the opening game of the first set which stretched to 10 minutes but was unable to convert.
Nadal made him pay, sprinting away for a 5-0 lead before the top seed got on the board.
Djokovic clung on, retrieving one break to get to 2-5 but Nadal eventually prevailed after one hour on court even if he required seven set points to edge ahead.
As a sign of the tension of the occasion, Nadal complained to chair umpire Eva Asderaki-Moore that he needed more time to collect his towel.
Djokovic aired his bemusement at the amount of clay on the baselines.
The old rivals exchanged breaks in the second and third games of a big-hitting second set but it was Djokovic who repeated the feat for a 4-2 lead before levelling the tie.
Twice in the third set Djokovic edged ahead, only to be reeled back in by Nadal who broke back in the 10th game as the world number one served for the set.
Djokovic then had to save a set point with an ice-cool drop shot in the 12th game.
“You cannot play better clay court tennis than this. It’s perfect,” tweeted an admiring Andy Murray, the former world number one who lost the 2016 final to Djokovic.
The 92-minute third set ended with Djokovic taking the tiebreak.
In a further twist on a dramatic evening, the 5,000 spectators inside Court Philippe Chatrier were allowed to watch the conclusion of the match despite it passing the 11pm Covid-19 curfew.
“In agreement with the national authorities, the match will come to an end in your presence,” said a stadium announcer told delighted fans.
Nadal broke in the first game of the fourth set but Djokovic levelled for 2-2 and broke again for 4-2.
He finished it off on a second match point when Nadal hit wide and long.
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