PARIS — Rafael Nadal won an epic late-night battle with old foe Novak Djokovic to reach the semifinals of the French Open.
The Spaniard, looking for a 14th Roland Garros title and 22nd Grand Slam overall, battled to a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4) victory over the Djokovic, defending champion and world No. 1, in a match lasting 4 hours, 12 minutes and finished at 1:15 a.m. local time.
This was the 59th time the duo, with 41 Grand Slam titles between them, have met.
This iteration became Nadal’s night, despite there being so much seemingly in Djokovic’s favor.
After all, Nadal has been injured, the match was late in the day as per Djokovic’s preference, the Serbian had beaten Nadal in the semifinals last year and was determined to draw even with his great rival at 21 Grand Slam titles, having been denied the chance to break the record himself in Australia.
But Nadal came hurtling out of the blocks and bullied Djokovic for the first 11 games, charging into the lead by a set and 3-0 with a double break.
Djokovic, who saved six break points before succumbing to a seventh in a marathon first game of the second set, looked shell shocked, his eyes wider than the Arc de Triomphe.
However, Nadal’s intensity dropped and Djokovic stopped the bleeding, hauling himself level before nudging ahead, 4-3, with a hold in a seventh game which lasted longer than some sets have this tournament.
Djokovic evened the match, but while the momentum was all his at the end of the second set, Nadal recalibrated and raced away with the third.
The cracks were showing as Djokovic angrily swatted the net with his racket, but he broke early in the fourth set courtesy of an overturned line call that left Nadal remonstrating with the umpire.
No matter. Nadal saved two set points on Djokovic’s serve and from 5-2 down, evened the set at 5-5.
A match that had started in May was now being played in June. Into a tie-break and Nadal roared to a 6-1 lead, Djokovic closed to 6-4, but a backhand winner brought the 59th meeting of these two greats to an end.
Djokovic leads the head-to-head 30-29, but more importantly, Nadal still leads the Grand Slam titles race and now has a golden opportunity to move two ahead.
“A very tough match,” Nadal said. “Novak is one of the best players in history and playing against him is always an amazing challenge. Today was another one.
“The only way to win against him is to play your best from the first point to the last. A magic night for me.”
Rafael Nadal will face third seed Alexander Zverev, who knocked out Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz, on Friday.
“He was a better player, I think, in the important moments,” Djokovic said. “He started very well. I didn’t start so great.
“I was gaining momentum, managed to win the second set and thought OK, you know, I’m back in the game.
“But then he had another two, three fantastic games at the beginning of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level in those.
“He showed why he’s a great champion. Staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did.”
The late finish was not lost on the two-time champion, who added: “There are difference of opinions about the night sessions. I think they are starting too late, to be honest.
“But again, TV decides. That’s the world we are living in. Broadcasters say it’s going to be night match, day match. They give the money. They decide.”
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