He always said his critics had been too quick to write him off and Roger Federer proved his point in thrilling fashion here last night.
The former world No 1, who last played in a Grand Slam final 18 months ago, will renew his rivalry tomorrow with Rafael Nadal in the climax of the French Open after becoming the first player this year to beat Novak Djokovic.
Federer completed a 7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 semi-final victory over the 24-year-old Serb in fading light at 9.37pm. It was Djokovic's first defeat since he lost to Federer in London in November and ended his remarkable 43-match winning run, which began with Serbia's Davis Cup triumph at the end of last year.
If he had reached the final Djokovic would have equalled John McEnroe's 1984 record of 42 wins since the start of the season. He would also have become world No 1, though he can still go top if Federer wins tomorrow.
Last night's victory will be particularly sweet for Federer given that this tournament last year was the beginning of the most barren run in his Grand Slam career since he won his first title at Wimbledon in 2003. The 29-year-old Swiss slipped to No 3 in the world rankings as Djokovic and Nadal became the two outstanding players.
Djokovic, who has pulled out of next week's Aegon Championships at Queen's Club in order to rest before Wimbledon, may have paid the price of his enforced five-day break after Fabio Fognini, his scheduled quarter-final opponent, pulled out with injury. The Serb lost the first two sets as Federer came out with all guns blazing. Having won the opening tie-break 7-5, Federer broke to lead 3-1 in the second set, which he went on to win after saving a break point in the ninth game.
Much of the tennis was sensational, with both men going for broke. Federer dropped his serve in the second game of the third set, which Djokovic went on to win, becoming the first player to take a set off the Swiss here this year. When the Serb broke to lead 5-4 in the fourth set, with the night closing in, it looked as though the players might have to return today for a one-set shoot-out, but Federer broke back with a big forehand winner.
By now the lights on the scoreboards in Court Philippe-Chatrier were glowing brightly through the gloom, but the stadium was still nearly full. The crowd here love Federer for all his style and finesse and roared him on in the closing stages. Federer saved a break point at 5-5 and the set went to a tie-break. From 4-3 up the Swiss created three match points with successive unreturned serves. Djokovic saved the first two, but Federer took the third with his 18th ace. The Swiss held up a single finger, indicating perhaps that he still regards himself as the No 1, before letting out a huge roar.
"It was a pleasure playing against Novak today," Federer said afterwards. "I told him at the net as well. I said his record speaks for itself, how great he's played already this season, and it's not even over yet. He can still achieve so much more this year. I thought we played some great tennis. The way the crowd got into it, as well, towards the end of the match, the way they back me here in Paris, is just an amazing feeling."
Afterwards Djokovic said Federer had deserved to win. "He played really well in the important moments," Djokovic said. "I congratulate him for a great performance."
A day that had begun with two young pretenders, Djokovic and Andy Murray, hoping to earn the chance to meet in a second successive Grand Slam final ended instead with the enthralling prospect of a renewal of the greatest rivalry in the modern game. Nadal, nine times a Grand Slam champion, has won 16 of his 24 meetings with 29-year-old Federer, who will be chasing his 17th major title.