Djokovic Breaks Nadal’s Roland-Garros Reign

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (photo: @rolandgarros/Twitter)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, June 11, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

There’s plenty of shared history between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Enough to fill an encyclopedia. The two future Hall of Famers have combined to create the most prolific rivalry in men’s tennis – and, arguably, it’s the best one, too.

On a beautiful, warm Paris Friday evening at Roland-Garros, Nadal and Djokovic renewed their rivalry for the 58th time – this time in the French Open semifinals – and wrote another thrilling chapter. Like the first 57 meetings, this one was an epic that was filled full of drama, excitement and entertainment, and it was played at a measured pace that guaranteed a long match – curfew be damned. The 5,000 fans that filled Court Philippe-Chatrier seemed evenly divided for both champions. They just wanted to be able to stay for its thrilling conclusion. (Spoiler alert: Their wish would be granted.)

After four hours and 11 minutes of all-out, down-and-dirty, clay-soaked tennis, it became a survival of the fittest and a question of just who would get tired first. As it happened, it was the 34-year-old Djokovic who proved just a little more fit than Nadal and a smidge less tired. In the end, the Serbian outlasted the King of Clay, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2, to advance to Sunday’s French Open title match for the sixth time in his career. Djokovic became the only player who has beaten Nadal twice at the French Open. The loss ended Nadal’s streak of winning four consecutive Roland-Garros titles.

The World No. 1 Djokovic, top seeded at this year’s French Open, came into Friday’s semifinal showdown against the No. 3 seed Nadal leading their career head-to-head 29-28. However, Nadal had won 19 of their 26 lifetime matches on clay, including the last five.

Clay has always been the equalizer, and in their most recent tussle, in Rome, it was Nadal who prevailed 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 in a closely contested title match. However, on this night, the warm conditions, which created a high bouncing ball and seemed to favor Nadal and his potent forehand in the early going, allowed Djokovic to wear down the 35-year-old Nadal as the semifinal wore on.

Nadal won the opening set 6-3 by skillfully constructing points with his all-or-nothing attitude, but it took him seven set points – and 59 minutes – to do it. The first game, alone, lasted nine minutes for Nadal to hold. He saved two break points with two excellent serves. Then, Nadal broke Djokovic in the Serbian’s very first service game. It would be that kind of night – lots of great moments, plenty of great points.

Unfortunately, the Spaniard’s momentum from winning the first set was short lived because Djokovic, as he is wont to do, came back full of resilience. He broke Nadal to go ahead 4-2, then held during a 10-minute, 12-point game by saving three break points for a 5-2 advantage. He saved two more break points in serving out the set to win 6-3, which leveled the match. After two hours, the two champions with 38 major titles between them had a long way to go and less than two hours before an 11 p.m. curfew would force the fans to leave Court Philippe-Chatrier.

In the third set, Djokovic broke to go ahead of Nadal at 3-2 as he appeared to be the steadier of the two, showing more signs of consistency while Nadal countered with moments of brilliance but also made some uncharacteristic mistakes for a 13-time French Open champion. After four breaks of serve in the set – including while Djokovic was serving for the set at 5-4 – the score was even and so were the total points. After all, Nadal found it in himself, somehow, to hit ridiculously outrageous winners when he was but two points from facing a 2-sets-to-1-deficit to break back for 5-all. Then, he saved a break point and held for 6-5 with his sixth ace. Somehow, it seemed so Rafa. However, Novak wasn’t quite ready to concede. At 5-6, 30-40, he surprised Nadal with a deft drop shot on the 11th shot of a suspenseful back-and-forth rally that saved the day and lifted him into a third-set tie break as the match clock struck three hours and 16 minutes.

After Djokovic won the tie break 7-4 with another well-timed – and surprisingly effective – drop shot that Nadal was unable to react to in time, suddenly for the first time in a long time Djokovic found himself leading Nadal two sets to one following their 92-minute third set that ended at 10:39 p.m. Paris time. Then, the crowd broke out in “La Marseillaise” and sang and danced upon learning from French Tennis Federation officials that they could stay past curfew to see the conclusion of the match. Dieu merci!

Going to the fourth set, it must have occurred to Nadal that if he wanted to win, he would have to do it in five sets. It’s something that had happened only twice for him in 107 matches at Roland Garros, but with Nadal’s unbeaten 13-0 record in French Open semifinals on the line, initially, the King of Clay did what he needed to do. He broke Djokovic and consolidated it to grab a quick 2-0 lead. But would it be enough? Too soon to tell as Djokovic rallied to win 12 of 13 points, which leveled the set at 2-all.

Then, without any warning – to Nadal, to the fans – guess what? Djokovic didn’t lose another game. No matter what Nadal could muster, it simply wasn’t enough. In the end, Djokovic reeled off six consecutive games to win both the set and the match. At 11:22 p.m., Nadal’s Roland-Garros reign had ended. The 58th meeting between Nadal and Djokovic was a classic that won’t soon be forgotten, and in time it’s one volumes will be written about.

Statistically, Djokovic hit six aces and 50 winners to 37 unforced errors, won 65 percent (55 of 85) of his first-serve points, converted eight of 22 break-point chances and outpointed Nadal 142-124. Nadal also hit six aces to go with 48 winners and 55 unforced errors. He converted six of 16 break points.

In his post-match press conference, Djokovic called it “definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland-Garros for me, and top three matches that I ever played in my entire career, considering the quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where 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, a lot of support. Just amazing.”

“That’s sport, you know,” Nadal said immediately after he walked off the court to a fallen hero’s ovation from the French fans. “I tried to give my best. Probably, was not my best day out there. …Well done for [Novak].”

Nadal was asked to describe the unbelievable atmosphere that surrounded him and Djokovic on Chatrier. He said: “Have been amazing, the support, no? I can’t thank enough the feelings. I have been super tired some moments, but the crowd gave me some energy to keep going, no?

“Yeah, it’s super emotional for me to feel the love of the people in the most important place of my tennis career, without a doubt. So, thanks a lot to them.”

In the end, this was a Roland Garros final everyone – especially the French fans – wanted and deserved, between the World No. 1 Djokovic and the forever King of Clay Nadal. Only one of them could – and would –  advance to meet No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, an earlier 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 winner over No. 6 seed Alexander Zverev. On this night, it would be Djokovic.

As Djokovic said at the end of the night, “Just one of these nights and matches that you will remember forever.”