Rafael Nadal will not win a 14th French Open title this year. The odds-on favorite and King of Clay suffered his first loss at his favorite event in six years when the same man who beat him then beat him again, Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic stunned the tennis world with an incredible comeback to beat the 13-time champion 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 in 4 hours, 22 minutes. Djokovic becomes the first player to beat Nadal twice at the French Open and the first to do it after the quarterfinals.
“Definitely the best match that I was ever part of in Roland Garros,” Djokovic said. “And top three matches that I’ve ever played in my entire career, considering 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 past 15-plus years, and the atmosphere, which was completely electric. For both players, a lot of support. Just amazing.
“It’s hard to find words bigger than all the superlatives you can think of for Rafa’s achievements in Roland Garros. He has been the most dominant player of Roland Garros history. He lost two, now three times, in his entire career,” Djokovic added. “He’s been playing here almost 20 years. That achievement speaks for itself. The amount of wins that he has made on this court is incredible. Each time you step on the court with him, you know that you have to climb Mount Everest to win against this guy here.”
Early on, though, it looked like a re-run of Nadal’s October blowout. After a few tight early games, Rafa ran the score up to 5-0 as Djokovic was well off his game. Djokovic would get a break back and while the set was lost, he showed signs of life.
The World No. 1 continued to improve breaking Nadal for a 2-0 lead. Nadal would get it right back but Djokovic would break again for 4-2 and this time fight off three break points to hold. Serving it out 5-3, Nadal would squander two more chances to level.
With the match even and both guys now in form, the stars aligned for one of the great sets in tennis history. The two warriors went toe-to-toe in a near-90 minute slugfest.
There were three straight breaks of serve, then another and when Djokovic tried to serve it out at 5-4, 30-0, Nadal rose to the challenge and the crowd rose to its feet again.
Two majestic games followed as Nadal saved two break points to hold for 6-5. Djokovic would then save a set point in the next game to force the breaker. From 2-3 down, Djokovic would win five of the next six points to take a 2-1 lead.
With clock 20 minutes away from the 11pm curfew, the crowd buzzed as an announcement sounded through the stadium. But it wasn’t requesting them to leave. Instead, the tournament with the government’s approval, announced they had clearance that they could stay. Fans erupted.
Djokovic, who had left the court, returned but quickly went down a break 2-0. Incredibly, Nadal wouldn’t win another game. Following a medical visit to fix some tape on his foot, Nadal got rolled and in a blink Djokovic got the break back, got his serve going and won six straight games to earn a spot in his 6th French Open final and 29th at a Slam.
“I was feeling good mentally, physically. I was motivated. I had a really clear plan in tactics, what I needed to do in order to perform better than I [did] in last year’s final,” Djokovic said. “The beginning of the match was kind of resembling last year’s final, but I just managed to get myself back into the first set. Even though I lost it, I felt like 3-6 down, I found my game.
“Even though I didn’t have such a great start, I was not too nervous, because I felt like I was hitting the ball very well,” he added. “It was just a matter of me working my way into the match and adjusting to his ball, which is completely different than any other player’s ball. The amount of spin he plays with from the forehand corner, it’s tremendous. But I was ready.”
Djokovic finished breaking Nadal 8/22, winning 50% of second serves and hitting 50 winners to 37 unforced.
Nadal had won his last 35 matches at the French Open and was a perfect 26-0 once he got to the French semifinals, but he tossed in eight double faults, won just 40% of second serves and was -7 in winners to unforced errors.
“No doubt he deserved to win,” said Nadal.
“I had the big chance with set point, 6-5, second serve,” Nadal added. “Anything could happen in that moment. Then I make a double-fault, easy volley in the tiebreak.”
“It’s true that, have been crazy points out there. The fatigue is there, too.
“These kind of mistakes can happen. But if you want to win, you can’t make these mistakes. So that’s it. Well done for him. Have been a good fight out there. I try my best, and today was not my day.”
After his 30th career win over Nadal, Djokovic now has his sights set on a second Career Slam and a 19th overall Slam. And do it, he’ll have to get past a man he needed five sets to beat last year, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The Greek advanced to his first career Slam final holding off Alexander Zverev in five sets 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 in 3 hours, 37 minutes. Tsitsipas jumped out early breaking a Zverev in a poor opening service game from the German.
In the second, Zverev broke and got up 3-0 but inexplicably would drop six straight games to go down 2-0.
With hopes of reenacting his 2020 US Open semifinal comeback against Pablo Carreno Busta, Zverev settled down and began thumping his shots. He would take the third and the fourth behind early breaks. In the fifth, with momentum at his side, he had an early break chance with Tsitsipas serving 0-40. But the Greek swatted those away and eventual broke and ran away with the match.
The Greek, who leads all player in match wins in 2020 with 39, hit 36 winners to 43 unforced, won 52% of his second serves and broke Zverev five times
“It was nerve-wracking and so intense in the first game of the deciding set,” said Tsitsipas. “I came back and I stayed alive. I felt the crowd with me, they were cheering me and giving me their energy. I still felt that there was hope and a chance to fight back. The only thing I could do is fight. It was very emotional and this wins means a lot. It’s the most important one of my career so far.”
Zverev, who still hasn’t defeated a Top 10 player in a Slam, was far from happy with making the last four at the French.
“I’m not at a stage anymore where great matches are something that I’m satisfied with. Today, nothing. I lost. I’m not in the final. Was it a good match? Yes. But at the end of the day, I’m going to fly home tomorrow. There’s nothing positive about that,” said Zverev who finished with 11 aces, seven double faults and won just 40% of his second serves.
“I don’t particularly care about semifinals,” said Zverev. “Might sound bad in a way or might sound arrogant. I’m not trying to be arrogant. I’m just saying it how it is. I wouldn’t have cared about a final either, to be honest. I didn’t win the tournament. Wimbledon is in two weeks’ time and I’m looking forward to that.”
The 22-year-old Tsitsipas is looking forward to his first Slam final.
“It means a lot. It was a difficult match. It was a match full of emotions, full of so many different phases that I went through. So, in the end, it was just such a big relief I was able to close it in such a good way. It was just exhausting,” Tsitsipas said. “It was difficult to handle all of these things and put them together, kind of compromise on some others. I was able to deliver and close the match when I had to. I’m proud of myself.”
Djokovic, though, has won five of seven from the Greek, and isn’t worried about fatigue.
“I know what I need to do. Obviously Tsitsipas, first time in the final of a Grand Slam,” Djokovic said. “For him it’s a great achievement, but I’m sure he doesn’t want to stop there. He’s in great form. I think he leads the rankings, race rankings this year. He’s had his best results overall. I think he matured as a player a lot. Clay arguably is his best surface.
“We played an epic five-setter last year in the semis here. I know it’s going to be another tough one. I’m hoping I can recharge my batteries as much as I can because I’m going to need some power and energy for that one.”
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