French Open 2013: Rafael Nadal’s epic semi-final win leaves Novak Djokovic distraught

Spaniard edges five-set marathon which has his uncle Toni in tears and world No 1 inconsolable

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. 

As Lead Partner of British Tennis, financial services company Aegon is helping to transform the sport, supporting the game at a grass-roots level through to world-class events. For more information please visit www.aegontennis.co.uk

Suggested Topics
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Sport
Wayne Rooney warms up ahead of the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane
football
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015