In an era of epic matches, you wonder how much longer this can carry on. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic produced yet another extraordinary marathon here yesterday in the semi-finals of the French Open as Spain’s king of clay outlasted Serbia’s world No 1 to extend arguably the greatest record in the history of this sport.
A 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 9-7 victory after four hours and 37 minutes sent Nadal into his eighth French Open final. In 59 matches at Stade Roland Garros he has still lost only once, when his perennially creaking knees gave way against Robin Soderling in the fourth round four years ago. If he wins tomorrow’s final against David Ferrer he will become the first man ever to claim the same Grand Slam title eight times.
What makes this year’s achievement all the more remarkable is the fact that only four months ago many doubted whether Nadal would ever be the same again after seven months off the court nursing those troublesome knees. His return has been stunning: in nine tournaments he has lost just two matches, both of them in finals.
Even after such a successful comeback, nobody – not even Nadal himself – knew how he would fare at a Grand Slam event, with the prospect of having to win seven best-of-five-set matches in a fortnight. He struggled in the early stages, but has improved with every round and passed the ultimate test with victory over Djokovic.
The Serb had long had his eyes on the victory here that would complete his Grand Slam collection, but in Nadal he came up against an apparently irresistible force. The only regret is that this was a semi-final rather than the final, which could turn into a procession given that Ferrer has lost his last eight meetings with his fellow Spaniard.
Ferrer, nevertheless, was an emphatic 6-1, 7-6, 6-2 semi-final winner over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and has yet to drop a set here this year. In reaching his first Grand Slam final Ferrer avoided equalling Tim Henman’s record of six semi-final defeats without making a final.
Nadal’s victory was all too much for his uncle and coach. Asked after the match whether he thought it was a miracle that his nephew had made the final again, Toni Nadal broke down in tears and was unable to finish the interview. The world No 4 himself said it had been “a really emotional match” in which “both of us played for a lot of moments at a very high level”, while Djokovic was all but inconsolable. “All I can feel now is disappointment,” he said. “I wanted this title so much.”
Eighteen months ago Djokovic beat Nadal at the Australian Open after the longest final in Grand Slam history. That match featured exactly the same number of games (55) as yesterday’s, but at five hours and 53 minutes it was an hour and a quarter longer.
A match on clay, especially one in which both men were warned for taking too long between points, might have been expected to take longer, but with both players going for their shots and saving their best for periods when their opponent’s level was dipping, many rallies were comparatively short. It was a contest of rapidly changing fortunes as each man fought back after what seemed significant setbacks.
After one of the coldest French Opens in living memory, the sun at last beat down from a cloudless sky, although a stiff breeze made serving from one end problematic. The consensus was that the conditions would favour Nadal, who took the first set with a single break. By the time the Spaniard had broken again to lead 3-2 in the second set, Djokovic was screaming in anguish at mistimed shots and shaking his head at line calls that did not go his way.
In the next game, nevertheless, the Serb forced his first break points and converted the third of them when Nadal hit a forehand wide. When Djokovic broke again to lead 5-3 and served out for the set with his best tennis so far, driving Nadal into the corners with some thunderous ground strokes, it seemed that the momentum had shifted decisively.
Bizarrely, however, Djokovic’s level nose-dived and he won only 12 points in a curiously one-sided third set. In the fourth he twice went a break down, dropping serve with some lame forehands, but on both occasions he broke back immediately, the second time when Nadal served for the match at 6-5. After three and a quarter hours Djokovic won the tie-break 7-3 to force a final set showdown.
This time it was Djokovic who set the pace, breaking immediately and holding the advantage until he served at 4-3. A game full of breath-taking drama, highlighted by Nadal being awarded a crucial point at deuce after Djokovic had toppled over the net in putting away an easy winner, ended with the Serb netting a forehand on the third break point.
Djokovic successfully served to stay in the match three times, his hold for 7-7 including one extraordinary point. Having chased back to retrieve a lob, Nadal had the audacity to play a lob through his legs with his back to the net, upon which a startled Djokovic put his smash into the net.
It was unfortunate such a wonderful contest ended with Djokovic handing Nadal victory on a plate. At 7-8 the Serb was broken to love after four horrible points: a missed smash (one of several he made during the match), a misjudgement in leaving a ball which landed inside the baseline and two carelessly over-hit forehands.
Throughout this year Djokovic had been saying that this tournament was his main target for 2013. In the end, perhaps that self-imposed pressure got to him.
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