Novak Djokovic was cruising to an easy showdown with Rafael Nadal on Sunday in the French Open, but then he hit a speed bump against Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Down match point at 5-4 in the third, the Greek caught fire and ran off five straight games to go up a break in the fifth. Trying to reach his first Slam final, Tsitsipas, who was treated in the third for what appeared to be a groin issue, was not in charge of the match with momentum on his side.
Djokovic, who was dominant early, couldn’t convert break point after break point. In the fourth set, Djokovic went 1-for-11 on break chances, and that cost him. With renewed confidence, Tsitsipas forced a decider.
To the start the fifth, Tsitsipas fought off more Djokovic chances to hold, but then at 1-all he lost his momentum and Djokovic regained control of the match and never let go to win it 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 in 3 hours, 54 minutes.
“I was definitely not pleased with the way I played the finishing stages of the third and fourth sets, but I was very pleased with the way I kept my composure mentally throughout the entire match,” said Djokovic. “I did feel that even though I lost the third and fourth, I still felt like I was the better player on the court. I had more control. I just felt comfortable playing.
”Credit to him for fighting back. He just played terrific tennis, especially in the fourth set when he was facing break points,” he added. “He’s a fighter. He’s one of the best players in the world.
“There was a lot at stake for him. He was motivated to try to turn the match around, which he did very well. But in the end I think he ran out of gas. That’s when I stepped it up, used my opportunities when they were presented in the fifth and closed out the match in a great fashion.”
The 22-year-old Tsitsipas had won 15 straight sets coming into the match, and then had to pull out a second 0-2 comeback.
“Novak showed once again what an incredible athlete, and his ability on the courts,” said Tsitsipas. “Was difficult, for sure, playing him. I think, one of the most difficult opponents I’ve faced in my entire life. I have huge respect for that. He gave me a really difficult time on the court.
“Unfortunately, towards the end of the match an injury that I had during my match in Rome came back. It was difficult to close the match in a fighting way, in a fighting spirit. But I tried my best despite all of this. I’m happy that I came back from two-sets-to-love down and tried to stay in the match as long as possible.”
Into his fifth French Open final, Djokovic will meet Nadal on Sunday. Nadal avenged a Rome loss to Diego Schwartzman getting through the Argentine 6-3, 6-3, 7-6(0) in a tougher match than the score indicated.
“Today I think the experience of Rome helped me in some way because I was able to take a look, the match, to analyze the things that worked well and things that, of course, didn’t work,” said Nadal. “I think I played tactically the right match.
Nadal has won six of seven from Djokovic in Paris, and of course he’s undefeated 12-0 in the French Open final.
”To play against Novak, I need to play my best. Without playing my best tennis, situation is very difficult,” said Nadal. “I know this is a court that I have been playing well for such a long time, so that helps. But at the same time, he has an amazing record here too, being in the final rounds almost every single time.
”Is one of the toughest opponents possible. But I am here to keep trying my best. I like to play in this scenario. I know I have to make a step forward. I think I did one today. But for Sunday is not enough. I need to make another one. That’s what I’m looking for. I going to work hard to try to make that happen.”
Overall, Djokovic leads 26-24 and has won 10 of the last 13.
“Has lost twice in his entire career on this court,” Djokovic said of Rafa. “Obviously the conditions are different than the ones that we are used to playing in May and June.
“I think that could be better for me, obviously the ball not bouncing as high over the shoulder as he likes it usually. Regardless of the conditions, he’s still there, he’s Rafa, he’s in the final and we’re playing on clay. Best-of-five playing him in the final at Roland Garros, I know that feeling.”
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