French Open 2021: Djokovic Beats Nadal in Men’s Semifinal

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The updated head to head record: Djokovic 30, Nadal 28.

“The first thing I want to say was it was my privilege also to be on the court with Rafa for this incredible match,” Djokovic said. “It is surely the greatest match I have played here in Paris. It’s also the match with the best atmosphere and ambiance and energy.”

Novak Djokovic defeats Rafael Nadal to reach the French Open men’s singles final.

Djokovic won 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2. He will play Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final.

Djokovic will go on to face Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final on Sunday.
Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2. at the French Open Friday night.

In a wild match that lasted 4 hours and 11 minutes and produced some of the most remarkable tennis anyone has witnessed since Djokovic beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2019, a match that included a 25-game fifth set, Djokovic pulled off the feat known as the hardest thing to do in tennis. He beat Nadal at Roland Garros, a venue Nadal has all but owned since 2005. Nadal’s record at the French Open is 105-3.

In the final set, a trainer treated a blister on Nadal’s foot, and he struggled with his movement in the last games. But Djokovic was the better player for much of the night, pushing Nadal deep behind the baseline when all he wanted to do is come forward.

In the final moment, Nadal send a backhand wide. Djokovic looked to the sky, bent over and grabbed a bit of red clay and rubbed it on his shirt.

Djokovic now faces Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in Sunday’s final. Djokovic won the year’s first Grand Slam in Australia in February.

Djokovic, playing brilliantly now, one game away from becoming the only man to beat Nadal twice at Roland Garros.

Nadal up against it now, down a break in the fourth set. He has extra gears, but so does Djokovic.

Fans in the stadium cheered on Nadal and Djokovic.
Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

French officials delivered one of the great moments of sports in the pandemic Friday night as the clock crept toward an 11 p.m. curfew in Paris that seemed destined to clear the stands during the epic match.

The tennis day had an early start, with Tsitsipas and Zverev lasting five sets in the first semifinal. Djokovic and Nadal did not take the court until after 7 p.m.

Then they started a stunning display of tennis, a roller-coaster duel in which Nadal grabbed the first set, and Djokovic battled to win the next two. The first three sets lasted three-and-a-half hours. The third, which Djokovic won 7-6 lasted 91 minutes.

As the set ended, the celebration turned to howls and catcalls as a stadium announcer began to make a statement that everyone expected to be a warning they would soon be headed for the exits. Instead, he announced that an exception had been granted and the 5,000 fans at Roland-Garros could stay to see the conclusion of what would either be a historic loss for Nadal or one of the great escapes the tournament has seen.

And suddenly a crowd of 5,000 sounded like one 10 times as large. There was chanting and singing in the aisles, hugs and high-fives after a mostly miserable year and a half for sports and much of the rest of the world.

The moment occurred two nights after officials cleared the crowd for the final games of Djokovic’s quarterfinal match against Matteo Berrettini of Italy. Djokovic also experienced the crowd being cleared to meet a curfew during an early round match against American Taylor Fritz at the Australian Open in February.

It was not immediately clear how tennis officials received permission to have the crowd remain past the curfew, which was extended from to 11 p.m. from 9 p.m. in June 9. France is hoping to eliminate the curfew early this summer.

It’s beginning to seem like Nadal is running out of opportunities in this match. He has been struggling to affirm his breaks since the middle of the first set.

Trainer out for Nadal on changeover with Djokovic leading 3-2. Worked on a blister on his left foot.

It was a third set for the ages, and Djokovic and Nadal have played a few sets for the ages.
Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

It was a third set for the ages, and Djokovic and Nadal have played a few sets for the ages.

Nadal’s level was fluctuating much more, but he was still able to hit the high notes. Djokovic served for the set at 5-4 and had a 30-0 lead when he dumped a forehand in the net. The door was ajar, and Nadal pried it open, winning the next three points to get back to 5-5.

With the crowd alternating chants of “Nole” and “Rafa,” the two pushed each other. Djokovic saved a set point at 5-6 with a drop shot that Nadal could reach but not handle. They went into a tiebreaker, and Djokovic was the more reliable force. Nadal lost the opening point on a double fault and then came the more uncharacteristic gaffe: a missed forehand volley into an open court that gave Djokovic a 5-3 lead. Nadal hit a drop shot winner on the next point, but that was his last winner.

Djokovic closed it out by tracking down another Nadal drop shot. Nadal’s desperate lob landed short, and Djokovic spread both arms wide shortly before 91 flashed on the electronic scoreboard. It had taken 91 minutes to break the tie and take a two-set-to-one lead. Djokovic left the court, and when Marc Maury, the stadium announcer, took the microphone and said “Ladies and gentlemen” the booing began, but unlike Wednesday’s night session, when fans were obliged to leave before it ended because of the 11 p.m. curfew in Paris, this announcement had a different message.

The government had agreed to let the fans stay until the end of the match. The boos turned to cheers and hugs. On to the fourth set.

I am sitting right behind a huge block of fans. Boos just turned to cheers. Social distancing was not respected unless hugs can be socially distanced.

It’s like France just won the World Cup. The crowd has just been told they can stay to watch the end of the match, despite the curfew.

That third set was 91 minutes. And the crowd can stay!!

That was a one hand shot, as in count on one hand how many times I have seen Nadal miss a forehand volley like that when it mattered.

Djokovic has lost three tiebreakers in his last two matches, even though he is usually deadly in the format.

Tiebreaker, which seems to sum up this rivalry.

This seems a good time to remind everyone that these two have played 57 times and the head-to-head is 29-28, Djokovic.

You get the feeling Nadal knows he is fighting for his tournament life here. He is pumping his fists and riling the crowd letting them know he needs all the help they can give.

Two of the best defensive lobs you could ask for from Djokovic. He gets his reward on the second one.

Nadal hits two completely outrageous winners that might have saved the tournament for him when he was two points from a 2-sets-to-1 deficit. Stunning.

As Djokovic survives his own serve for a 5-3 lead, I’m sitting here in the stadium thinking that he is a game and a set away from having an incredibly good chance to pull off a calendar Grand Slam. He’s the reigning champ at Wimbledon. Federer is hobbled, and no one is close to him on a hardcourt.

Djokovic gets a delay warning for going over 30 seconds as he serves on break point.

The idea of this going five sets feels torturous. Both players seem so gassed after so many points. The act of serving and playing into deuce on nearly every game is taking so much out of them. Have there ever been so few free points? Djokovic’s lead disappears with a break.

Nadal hitting a very high proportion of passing shots full force to Djokovic’s body. Must have been in the scouting report.

Djokovic in front against Nadal at the French Open for the first time since 2015. Up a break in the third.

Djokovic producing more consistent quality at this stage. Nadal hanging on with bursts of brilliance but making uncharacteristic mistakes.

My favorite exchanges in this match have been what happens AFTER the first drop shot.

Djokovic and Nadal toweling off and changing between matches.
Credit…Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

As this match has heated up so have the players. But because of new protocols implemented due to the pandemic, it’s taking longer for them to dry off between their grueling points than usual.

Ball kids no longer handle players’ towels, so instead of having their towel brought to them, a player must retrieve his or her towel from a basket at the side of the court. On Philippe Chatrier Court, which has the biggest margins of any tennis court used on tour, the courtside baskets are further away than anywhere else.

Both players have complained to the chair umpire, Eva Asderaki-Moore, that they need more time between points in order to retrieve their towels. But Asderaki-Moore has already shown considerable lenience. Despite the rule allowing 25 seconds between points, according to NBC Djokovic has taken 29 seconds on average before his serve, and Nadal has taken an average of 31 seconds.

Asderaki-Moore has not called a time violation on either player, but seeing the seconds ticking down has added to the tension.

Nadal reacts during the second set.
Credit…Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This second set was gripping, and Djokovic cracked it open by breaking Nadal’s serve in the sixth game and then holding firm after two long tussles to hold his own serve in the seventh and ninth games. Djokovic’s backhand crosscourt, one of his best weapons, is starting to do consistent damage, and Nadal has tried to up the pace on several occasions with his forehand and missed shots he would normally make at his sharpest. He had five break points on Djokovic’s serve down the stretch and failed to convert.

He did have the shot of the night, a physics-defying backhand passing shot winner crosscourt off a fine, deep volley from Djokovic. But Djokovic has found his rhythm now against Nadal’s heavy strokes, and he will take plenty of confidence from winning the set 6-3. He is already having a better day than in their last match at Roland Garros, when he lost the 2020 final in straight sets.

Djokovic hits a backhand against Nadal.
Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

Most players would not bother with a set in which they were down 0-5 to Nadal at Roland Garros, but Djokovic is obviously not most players. That battle to get to 3-5 had a message in it, and it appears to have also helped him settle in. He got his first break to go up 2-0 in the second set. And he’s beginning to get a lot of good looks at Nadal’s serve. Nadal moves to get into the court and hunt for his forehand when he is serving, but Djokovic has him back peddling, even after his first ball. While Nadal was able to get back on serve in this set with a break at love in game three, if this keeps up he’s going to have a real fight on his hands, especially as it grows cooler with night, when Djokovic is lethal.

Djokovic’s game is in better shape in this final than in 2020.
Credit…Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

The rout is not on this year. Down 0-5, Djokovic made a big push to make the first set more competitive before Nadal prevailed 6-3. I am sitting in the front row of the press box on the center court. We are behind one of the baselines: a good spot to observe trajectories and spins. Both players’ shots are really kicking high in these warm, low-humidity conditions. Hawkeye data has shown that Nadal’s forehand is bouncing about six inches higher on average in this year’s tournament compared to the 2020 French Open. But Djokovic’s forehand also has plenty of shape, and his game is in better shape in this final than in 2020. He saved seven set points before Nadal finally closed out the first set at the one-hour mark. One key statistic: Djokovic is winning just 27 percent of his second-serve points. That will have to improve if he is to beat Nadal a second time at Roland Garros.

Nadal serves in the first set.
Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

PARIS — It is the spring, not the autumn, but the weather system Nadal is creating must look uncomfortably familiar to Djokovic. He lost the opening set 6-0 in the 2020 French Open final in October. He trails 5-0 in June. Nadal is serving particularly well under pressure and looks locked in with his groundstrokes. Djokovic is making errors off both wings, but that is in part because of the pressure he is feeling to play close to the lines. The crowd seems evenly divided so far, and they may be united if Djokovic can find a way to make this a match and push this semifinal toward the 11 p.m. curfew. I wouldn’t want be the one to tell this crowd it’s time to go home.

Nadal had the crowd behind him.
Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

Nadal gets the early edge after a nine-minute hold in the first game, breaking Djokovic in the second service game to go up 3-0. There may be plenty of twists ahead, but if this goes the way last year’s blowout final, it will have all started with Nadal returning two overheads from Djokovic on break point then winning that duel at the net. A genuine explosion from the crowd followed. That was an early stab into Djokovic’s heart. My big hope for this match, and those hopes took a bad turn as Tsitsipas-Zverev lurched into a fifth set, is that this somehow ends before 10:55 this evening. There is an 11 p.m. curfew still in effect and I would hate to see what is going to happen if they have to clear the stadium near the conclusion of what would be a classic.

First break to Nadal on Djokovic’s opening service game. Practically daring him to come in, and it works.

Nine-minute hold in the opening game for Nadal. Two break points saved with great serves, one to each corner of the box in the ad court.

Spectators in the stands at Roland Garros during the French Open semifinals.
Credit…Christian Hartmann/Reuters

It is another warm, beautiful night in Paris with temperatures in the high 70s, ideal outdoor café weather.

It is also considered Rafael Nadal weather, creating fast, high-bouncing conditions that make his whipping forehand all the harder to handle.

But the truth is that Nadal has won in all manner of conditions at the French Open, including last year when the tournament was postponed until late September and early October because of the pandemic. It was often cold and clammy and yet Nadal produced some of his finest tennis when it mattered most: routing Djokovic in straight sets in the autumnal final.

“As long as there is red clay on the court, conditions are good at Roland Garros for Rafael Nadal,” Jim Courier, the former French Open champion, said last week.

Stefanos Tsitsipas staved off a comeback attempt from Alexander Zverev in the fifth set.
Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 22-year-old rising star from Greece, will play in his first Grand Slam final Sunday.

Tsitsipas survived five-sets of testosterone-fueled tennis Friday, staving off a stirring comeback from Alexander Zverev of Germany Friday, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 in the first men’s semifinal. He will play the winner of the heavyweight matchup between Rafael Nadal, the 13-time French Open champion, and Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1.

Tsitsipas, a passionate player and person who makes films in his spare time, fought back tears in an interview on the court after the match.

“All I can think of is my roots where I came from a small place outside Athens, my dream was to play here,” he said.

He is the first Greek player to make a Grand Slam final.

Tsitsipas has now beaten two players ranked in the top six to reach the final and has dropped just a single set in six matches.

Tsitsipas was in control from the beginning of match, breaking Zverev in his first service game and cruising for an early lead. Zverev, 24, a lanky and powerful player who has made the semifinal round in four of the past five Grand Slams, stepped up in the second set, surging to a 3-1 lead, only for Tsitsipas to raise his game even higher.

With Zverev searching for tight angles, Tsitsipas chased down every shot. And when he reached the balls, he showed off every ounce of creativity.

He has the power to exert intense pressure on an opponent, a sneaky backhand drop shot, and at 6-foot-4, an intimidating net game. Exerting all three at once, he reeled off five straight games to take the second set as Zverev got sloppy, spraying his strokes wide and long.

Tsitsipas tearing up: “All I can think of is my roots, where I came from. I came from a really small place outside Athens. My dream was to play here. My dream was to play in a big stadium at the French Open one day. I would never have thought that I could.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas defeats Alexander Zverev in the other men’s singles semifinal.

Tsitsipas won 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3.

Key game of the match: Tsitsipas rallying from 0-40 to hold in the opening game of the fifth set. Righted his ship.

Four match points saved by Zverev: two with huge first serves and one, the gutsiest, with an exquisite drop shot.

Their 2012 Australian Open final match was the longest in recorded history at 5 hours and 53 minutes. But Djokovic found energy at the end to rip off his shirt.
Credit…Ryan Pierse/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Consensus is elusive on many a topic, but in an informal poll I conducted over the last 24 hours, there was plenty of consensus on a tennis question.

What’s the best match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic?

Lots of responses and frankly lots of agreement. Number one, clearly, was the 2012 Australian Open final, which had fluctuating quality but unassailable quantity at 5 hours and 53 minutes. It left both men struggling to stand at the awards ceremony even if Djokovic had the requisite energy to rip his shirt from his body after closing out the 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (6), 7-5 victory at Melbourne Park.

It was the longest Grand Slam singles final in recorded history. Matches were not routinely timed in the sport’s earlier days, but it is difficult to imagine any went longer considering how long Nadal and Djokovic take between serves and how short the changes of ends were before the advent of television coverage.

“It was obvious on the court for everybody who has watched the match that both of us, physically, we took the last drop of energy that we had from our bodies,” Djokovic said. “I think it was just the matter of maybe luck in some moments and a matter of you know wanting this more than maybe the other player in the certain point.”

It was their first five-setter against each other, and Djokovic actually collapsed to the court late in that set after missing a backhand to end a 31-stroke rally. “That’s the first knockdown I’ve ever seen in tennis,” said Jim Courier, who was commenting on the match for Australian television.

Fans also forget that the match finished indoors after rain forced the retractable roof in Rod Laver Arena to close at 4-4 in the fourth set. It ended at 1:37 a.m. and Djokovic later saw the sun rise at his hotel before finally going to sleep, but not before watching the highlights of his victory.

Nadal, presumably, was less eager to relive the moment, but he did have perspective.

“I lost a match, but it was perhaps the final that I lost that hurts the least, because I did all I could,” Nadal said. “I fought with everything I had.”

Credit…Mast Irham/European Pressphoto Agency

Career five-set records: Tsitsipas: 5-4, Zverev: 16-7.

Fabrice Santoro, the former French star doing commentary for British network ITV, is already getting concerned about tonight’s 11 p.m. curfew in Paris for spectators. Nadal vs Djokovic is still far from starting, and they play at a famously measured pace. “What is the worst case for the tournament today?” Santoro asks. “The worst case is to ask people to leave the Court Philippe Chatrier tonight at 10:45 p.m. when Rafa and Novak start the fifth set.”

Both Djokovic, left, and Nadal have faced only fleeting adversity on their way to the semifinal.
Credit…Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Both Djokovic and Nadal were heavily favored to reach the semifinals, and did so without much drama.

In the fourth round, Djokovic played an uncharacteristic first two sets against Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti, losing both in tiebreakers. But he reverted to form for the remainder of the match, until Musetti threw in the towel down 6-7 (7), 6-7 (2), 6-1, 6-0, 4-0 after long stretches where he was barely winning points.

Both Djokovic and Nadal dropped a set in their quarterfinal match, with Djokovic dropping the third set in a 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 win over the ninth-seeded Matteo Berrettini, while Nadal dropped the second set in his 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 win over the 10th-seeded Diego Schwartzman, ending a streak of 36 consecutive sets won by Nadal.

The one area where Djokovic has a considerable advantage over Nadal statistically during this tournament is serving: Djokovic has landed 68 percent of his first serves, compared with 62 percent for Nadal, and has been broken only three times in 81 service games through five matches, compared with 11 of 74 service games dropped by Nadal.

It’s nearing 5:30 p.m. in Paris and Zverev and Tsitsipas are early in their fourth set. Nadal and Djokovic are scheduled to follow. If anyone thinks that Wednesday night was the French Open’s last night session, they are dreaming. It was only the last “official” night session.

Nadal routed Djokovic in straight sets in a lopsided 2020 French Open final to win the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Credit…Julien De Rosa/EPA, via Shutterstock

Nadal remains a prohibitive favorite at Roland Garros, but because his world ranking slipped to third, he drew the top-ranked Djokovic in the semifinals, a round earlier than would normally be expected of the two greats.

While what comes next may feel anticlimactic, the winner of this match will need to win one more to get his hands on the Coupe des Mousquetaires. No. 5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 6 seed Alexander Zverev, facing off in the first semifinal on Friday, are each looking to reach his first French Open final.

While either Djokovic or Nadal will be considerable favorites, neither Tsitsipas nor Zverev should be overlooked. Both won titles in the run up to the French Open, with Tsitsipas triumphing in Monte Carlo and Zverev winning in Madrid, where he scored a third straight victory over Nadal. Tsitsipas, similarly, beat Nadal on the clay of Madrid in 2019, and lost to him in a competitive three-set final this year in Barcelona.

Nadal needs only to win this French Open to hold the most Grand Slam men’s singles titles with 21.
Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

Currently tied with Roger Federer at 20, Nadal is two match wins from moving into first place in Grand Slam men’s singles titles.

Federer equaled the previous record-holder, Pete Sampras, when he won his 14th Grand Slam title at the French Open in 2009, and moved into sole possession of the record when he won his 15th a month later at Wimbledon. He was joined by Nadal at 20 apiece when Nadal won last year’s French Open.

Djokovic also has designs on the record, however. He currently has 18 Grand Slam titles, and could reach 21 this year if he wins in Paris, as well as Wimbledon and the United States Open. Djokovic is less than a year older than Nadal, but his ability to contend on both grass and hard courts likely increases his chances of finishing on top when all is said and done.

Federer, of course, isn’t necessarily done either: he pulled out of the French Open after his third round win so he could better on the grass court swing, where he could claim his own 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon next month.

Though there is still much to play for, one thing seems certain: Sampras will occupy an increasingly distant fourth place, and all three men have a ways to go before they equal Serena Williams’s Open era record of 23 titles.

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