Djokovic says Nadal win was his greatest Roland Garros match
Novak Djokovic pulled out all the stops to end the title defence of Roland Garros king Rafael Nadal, giving himself a shot at a 19th slam.
Novak Djokovic described the thrilling four-set win over Rafael Nadal that took him through to the French Open final as "the best match I was ever part of in Roland Garros".
A magnificent contest between two of the all-time greats saw 13-time French Open winner and reigning champion Nadal beaten 3-6 6-3 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 on Court Philippe Chatrier. The match, which ran to four hours and 11 minutes, was of such a level that tournament organisers sought and were awarded special dispensation to bypass the curfew which had been due to take effect at 23:00 hours local time.
Djokovic and Nadal play out epic semi-final
It appeared, at the end of the third set, that spectators were about to be asked to leave the grounds, and the beginning of an announcement was booed as fans feared the worst. But the message turned out to be as uplifting as the tennis, which was remarkable, Djokovic avenging his straight-sets loss in last year's title match.
"It was definitely the best match that I was ever part of in Roland Garros for me, and top three matches that I ever played in my entire career," Djokovic said. "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. For both players there was a lot of support. Just amazing. I was very happy that there was no curfew. I heard there was a special waiver, so they allowed the crowd to stay. Just one of these nights and matches that you will remember forever. 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. He's been playing here almost 20 years. That achievement speaks for itself."
Nadal raced into a 5-0 lead, but momentum was turning Djokovic's way by the time the Spaniard crept over the finish line in that opening set. Djokovic becomes the first player to beat Nadal twice at Roland Garros, having done so previously in the 2015 quarter-finals, and the first man to defeat him in a semi-final at the clay-court grand slam. He now leads their all-courts career head-to-head by 30 wins to 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," Djokovic, the 2016 champion, said. "I had won only once in I think our eight matches that we ever played in Chatrier here in Roland Garros. I tried to take some positives and some cues from that match in 2015 that I won against him to implement tonight, which worked out very nicely. But it's just one of these matches that I really will remember for a very long time, not just because I won the match but because of the atmosphere and just the occasion was very special."
Nadal saw his hopes of a record 21st grand slam title slip away. That would have taken him past Roger Federer and into the outright all-time lead, but should Djokovic now carry off the trophy by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas, that will put the world number one on 19 slams, ahead of a Wimbledon championship for which he will start as many people's clear favourite. The Big Three could all be on 20 slams in a matter of weeks.
Assessing a rare loss at his favourite tournament, Nadal said: "That's sport, you know. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I tried to give my best. Probably it was not my best day out there. Even if I fought and put in a lot of effort, the position on the shots haven't been that effective. Against a player like him that takes the ball early, you are not able to take him out of his positions, then it is very difficult, no?"
Nadal served eight double faults and perhaps the key error was a straightforward volley that he sent long in the tie-break, but the 35-year-old put in a typically warrior-like performance.
"These kind of mistakes can happen. But if you want to win, you can't make these mistakes," Nadal added. "So that's it. Well done for him. It has been a good fight out there. I tried my best, and today was not my day."