AP Photo/Michel Euler
Novak Djokovic ended Rafael Nadal’s four-year run of dominance at the French Open with a four-set win in an instant-classic semifinal on Friday that lasted more than four hours.
Djokovic prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 to hand Nadal his first career loss in a French Open semifinal or final.
Coming into this matchup, Nadal had won 35 consecutive matches at this tournament dating back to 2017. His last loss was in 2016 when a wrist injury forced him to withdraw prior to a third-round match against Marcel Granollers.
In addition to Nadal’s overall dominance at the French Open, he has owned Djokovic in their head-to-head battles. Djoker had lost seven of their previous eight matches at Roland Garros prior to this victory.
Nadal looked like he was going to be able to cruise to a win right out of the gate. He led the first set 5-0 in less than 40 minutes of playing time.
Things took a turn in the opening set from that point. Djokovic won the next three games, saving two set points and two break points along the way.
Nadal was eventually able to put the first set away 6-3 on his seventh set point, but it ultimately took him nearly one hour to close it out.
Despite dropping the opening set, Djokovic seemed to find his footing along the way and carried his momentum into the second set. He was able to take advantage of sloppy play by Nadal, who committed three double-faults in the first set.
Djoker’s second serve was working well in the second set, and he had a 7-1 edge over his opponent. Nadal continued to look undisciplined with 12 unforced errors to help propel Djokovic to a 6-3 win to even the match at one set apiece.
In a meeting that was a classic from start to finish, the third set will go down as one of the best back-and-forth battles between these two iconic players. It took 92 minutes and went to a tiebreak to determine who would have the advantage going into the fourth set.
The third set featured a combined total of 96 points, 37 winners and six aces.
After splitting the first six games of the set, Djokovic jumped out to a 5-3 lead and seemingly looked in control by breaking Nadal’s serve. He went up 30-0 in the 10th game before a bad forehand shot opened the door for Rafa to get his own break and even things up.
Nadal won the 11th game by saving two break points to go up 6-5, but he was unable to break Djokovic’s serve to avoid the tiebreak.
It seemed like Nadal was running out of gas during that marathon set. He had 55 unforced errors in the match, with 23 coming in the third set alone.
The match was taking so long through three sets that it was approaching 11 p.m. local time when fans would have been asked to vacate Stade Roland Garros because of a COVID-19 curfew.
Instead, it was announced in the arena that fans would be permitted to stay past the cutoff time and finish watching the match.
After a brief timeout in the action, it seemed like the match was destined for a fifth set. Nadal won the first two games in the fourth and seemed to find his footing.
Things quickly took a turn, however, with Djokovic winning six straight games to put the match away in four hours, 11 minutes. The win was his first over Nadal at a clay-court event since the 2016 Italian Open quarterfinals.
Djokovic is now one victory away from his second career French Open title. The 34-year-old would also become the first player on the ATP Tour to win the first two Grand Slam tournaments of the season since he accomplished the feat in 2016.
Djokovic will play Stefanos Tsitsipas in the 2021 French Open final on Sunday at 9 a.m. ET on NBC.