The first two games of Friday’s French Open semi-final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal lasted 10 minutes each with both breathtaking points and break points. It was an early indication that we were in for an epic showdown. But when Djokovic went 0-5 down in the first set, it felt like a flashback to last year’s final in October, where he could win just seven games against the soon-to-be 13-time champion.
That was the only passage of play that was anywhere close to 2020 as the world No 1 flipped the script and did the near impossible: defeat Nadal at Roland Garros. Djokovic is now the first man to defeat Nadal in the French Open semifinal and the first man to defeat the Spaniard twice at his kingdom as he registered a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 win in one of the best matches at the clay-court Grand Slam.
In those four sets and four hours plus change, Djokovic pulled off one the most significant victories of his career, and perhaps men’s tennis. He is now one match away from becoming the first man in the Open era to win each Grand Slam twice.
Before this match, Nadal was 105-2 at French Open and had never lost a best-of-five clay court match from a set up. How then, did Djokovic do something that had only been done twice in 15 years?
By bringing together a laser-like focus with a razor-sharp plan-of-attack and actually executing it under relentless pressure. In other words, by turning into peak Novak-Djokovic-at-a-Grand Slam mode. Perhaps the only mode that can stop Nadal at French Open, as we saw back in 2015.
From the very first game, indeed the third point, the world No 1 played out of his skin to return virtually every ball from every corner of the court. He squandered two break points and was broken soon after, but although it didn’t get the returns right away, it served to settle him in his game plan – defend every inch and pin Nadal down.
Setting the tone
Even after losing the first five games, he stayed in the set and reeled off three straight games with a stubborn refusal to make it easy. That set the tone for the match because to wrong-foot Nadal on his own turf, you need to have impeccable footwork and be ready to wear out your shoes.
“It was just a matter of me working my way into the match and adjusting to his ball, which is completely different than any other player’s ball. The amount of spin he plays with from the forehand corner is tremendous. But I was ready,” Djokovic said after the match.
As he rallied to take the second set, Djokovic executed two important tactics to the tee. Push Nadal to the backhand side and cramp him for space. Send back everything and extend the points till he relents. Theoretically, this is a good way to counter the lefty might of the 35-year-old. To put it in practice takes a level of skill and will that few possess.
The world No 1 constantly attacked and forced Nadal out of his comfort zone, not letting him use the middle of the court to gain leverage in rallies. The exchanges were still shoulder-popping and intensely physical, but Nadal was unable to control most of them regularly enough with his dominant spin-heavy forehand or get consistent speed or depth to end rallies satisfactorily.
The big differential in the match was the unforced errors count. Nadal finished with a whopping 55 enforced errors to 48 winners while Djokovic had 50 winners to 37 errors. The Spaniard making 55 errors on clay (19 on backhand groundstrokes), across four sets, says just how much he was stretched in all rallies. The third seed was not having an off day for most part of the match, it was his opponent who was forcing him to change track.
It was a perfect storm from the Serb: inducing errors on what would have otherwise been routine Nadal shots while getting 50 winners past his defence.
That Djokovic is the best returner in the game was never in doubt and he provided a devastating demonstration of this in the semi-final. The 34-year-old barely let Nadal get away with an easy service game and the Spaniard had lowest margins on serve at this year’s tournament. While Nadal broke right back once each in the second and third set, his serve was always under pressure, facing 22 break points of which 8 were converted.
In many of the longer rallies, it felt like Nadal was second guessing himself, another unusual sight. Even with the Serb making him reduce his forehand reach, the rallies were brutal and bombastic in turn. It was a highlight reel every time they indulged in longer points, a continuous mix of spin and depth and angles parried by shots seemingly borrowed from cricket and squash.
But Djokovic pulled ahead in the mid-length rallies (5 to 8 shots), which are usually in the Nadal zone. By the fifth and sixth shot, Nadal on clay has constructed the point and has you on the mat. But the superlative court coverage and craft of Djokovic meant that this weapon was also out of the Spaniard’s reach.
The centerpiece of the battle was the third set where it all came together – more than 90 minutes long with a tiebreak deciding it. A set that was a match in itself, it pushed physical and mental boundaries to the extreme. Nadal lost serve, broke right back and was broken to love again. But just when it all seemed lost for him, he broke Djokovic serving for the set. And yet he couldn’t convert a set point on return.
Both players then reached apparent points of no return: Djokovic failed to serve out the set at 5-4, 30-0 with a missed mid-court forehand into the net while Nadal overpushed a simple volley at 4-3 in the tiebreak. But, in a telling sign, it was Djokovic who overcame his blip.
And that, in its essence, was the match.
By this point Nadal, who was already looking drained, seemed exhausted and the whispers were getting louder: if this came down to a battle of pure endurance, there could be only one winner.
Nadal showed the last dying flames of a fire when he started the fourth set with a break and led 2-0. But he didn’t win a game after that as Djokovic raced ahead for a momentous victory in the context of men’s tennis.
What happens on Sunday when he takes on first-time finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas remains to be seen. But for now, in a semi-final that felt like it needed a trophy presentation on its own, Djokovic proved once again that he is one of a kind.