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The record is broken. The era has ended. The dragon is slain. On Friday night, Novak Djokovic did something that had never been achieved before. He defeated a full-power Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
Technically, this was the third match that Nadal had lost at the French Open, after previous reverses against Robin Soderling in 2009 and Djokovic himself in 2015. But asterisks applied, in both cases.
In 2009, Nadal was suffering from sore knees and personal turbulence caused by his parents’ separation. In 2015, he was in the middle of a two-and-a-half-year spell when he completely misplaced his mojo.
This year has been different. Nadal arrived at Friday’s semi-final on a sequence of 33 straight wins at this event. He had already won the Rome title and the Barcelona title, to demonstrate that he was fully prepared for his traditional Parisian parade.
But his nemesis was ready for him. Judging by the flawless construction of his four-set victory, Djokovic has been waiting for this moment ever since Nadal trounced him in last year’s French Open final. More than that, he has been plotting, planning, and sharpening his weapons – which on Friday night included a fusillade of laser-like crosscourt backhands.
The match was so utterly compelling that the French authorities staged a intervention over the planned 11pm curfew. According to the rulebook, Court Philippe Chatrier should have been cleared of its 5,000 spectators at 2-1 in the fourth set. Instead, the fans were allowed to stay, and celebrated by chanting “Merci, Macron!”
The heart of the contest was a third set that lasted 92 minutes – which is longer than many regular tour matches – and swayed this way and that like a ship’s mast in high seas. By this stage, Djokovic had recovered from a poor start – in which he lost the first five games – to find his peak level of metronomic accuracy. We were almost an hour into the set before he made an unforced error.
The amazing thing was that Nadal stayed with Djokovic as closely as he did. Twice, the defending champion went down a break. Twice, he fought back. He was at his most physically intense at this stage, investing everything he had in whipping up heavy topspin off both wings. He probably should have won the set on the tie-break, too, but for the most uncharacteristic of errors on a forehand volley.
Here was one moment – in the middle of 4hr 11mins of unparalleled brilliance – to make amateur hobbyists feel better about themselves. After a delicate exchange of angled drop-shots, Nadal worked an opening and came surging forward onto a slow, high ball with the court gaping at his mercy. He is deadly from that position, one of the best finishing volleyers in the game. But he pushed a little too eagerly at the ball, and it flew long, giving Djokovic the chance to serve out for the set.
The emotion on show was extraordinary, with both men emitting ferocious roars at moments of high pressure. The rallies, by and large, were stunning. And then, every game or two, the players would throw in such an absurd display of court-coverage and ball shaping that it felt more like performance art than sport.
The whole sport of tennis has been bemoaning the inability of the next generation to challenge these legends – and yet, when you watched Friday night’s match, it was hard not to feel sympathy for their rivals.
“You cannot play better clay-court tennis than this, it’s perfect” said a watching Andy Murray on Twitter. The Eurosport pundit Mats Wilander also judged this to be the finest display he had ever seen on the surface, adding “They are both such warriors.”
That insane third set was always likely to be decisive, and Nadal faded quickly in the fourth despite claiming an early break. By the end, he looked to be limping slightly, and the final couple of games were one-sided as Djokovic surged to his 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2 comeback win.
“Definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland Garros,” said a delighted Djokovic afterwards, “and top three matches that I ever played in my entire career.
Nadal gave an honest assessment of his own minor failings – which included that “easy volley” at 3-4 in the tie-break – while also pointing out that conditions had moved into Djokovic’s favour as the night wore on and the temperature dropped. Increasingly, the match was being played at hip level – thanks to the reduced bounce – rather than at shoulder height as Nadal would prefer.
Such are the small details that can turn an epic encounter like this one. Bravo, then, to both players. And neither should we forget the contribution of the French prime minister Jean Castex. “He was watching at home,” claimed ITV pundit Marion Bartoli, “and he called Roland Garros to say ‘Let the fans stay, the atmosphere is too amazing.’”
That's all folks
We are going to end it there after a fabulous day of tennis at Roland Garros.
The men's final will be between Stefanos Tsitsipas and Novak Djokovic on Sunday.
But on Saturday, Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova takes on Czech Barbora Krejcikova for the women's title.
Telegraph Sport will have live coverage of both finals so join us again.
"First I want to say it is a privilege to be on this court with Rafael Nadal. The biggest match I have ever played here in Paris. Also the best match with the best atmosphere for both players.
"To win against Rafa on this court you have to play your best tennis, and tonight I played my best tennis. It's hard to find the words to sum up how I feel. You tell yourself there is no pressure but there is.
"Pressure is a privilege - to test my game and my character in matches like this."
Maria enjoyed what she saw
The king of clay departs
Nadal* 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 2-6 Djokovic
Nadal double fault, 0-15. Nadal forehand into the net, 0-30. Nadal backhand wide, 0-40. Three match points.
Nadal forehand wide. GAME. SET. MATCH DJOKOVIC.
Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 2-5 Djokovic*
Unreal forehand down the line winner by Nadal, 15-15. Djokovic double fault, 30-30. Great wide serve by Djokovic draws the return error from Nadal, 40-30.
Djokovic drop shot winner, break consolidated. He's one game away from the final.
Nadal* 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 2-4 Djokovic
Djokovic backhand winner down the line, applauded by Nadal, 15-15. Deep Djokovic backhand catches out Nadal. Another huge point.
Nadal backhand into the tramline, break point Djokovic. Nadal nets a backhand and Djokovic breaks.
Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 2-3 Djokovic*
Outstanding service game by Djokovic as he holds to love.
Nadal* 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 2-2 Djokovic
Nadal double fault, his second of the set, 15-30. Deep Djokovic backhand and Nadal can't get the ball back in play.
Djokovic breaks back as Nadal puts a backhand long.
Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 2-1 Djokovic*
Routine hold by Djokovic.
Nadal* 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 2-0 Djokovic
Nadal double fault, 0-30. Nadal drop shot winner, 30-30. Big point coming up.
Djokovic nets a backhand, 40-30. Djokovic tries to overpower Nadal but the Spaniard refuses to back down and rifles a forehand down the line to win the game.
Fourth set: Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 1-0 Djokovic*
An 11pm curfew in Paris was due to come into action and would have resulted in fans leaving the stadium.
But the announcer on Chatrier says the fans can stay until the match ends. The fans are chanting 'Merci, Macron' and singing the La Marseillaise.
After a change of clothes off court, Djokovic comes back with a white shirt and is down a break point as he misses a forehand.
And Nadal breaks as Djokovic doesn't do enough at the net to put the ball away and is punished as the 13-time champion gets the ball back deep and draws the error.
Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 Djokovic - TIEBREAK
Nadal double fault, 0-1. Djokovic backhand long, 1-1. Djokovic forehand winner, 1-2. Djokovic nets an attempted drop shot, 2-2. Djokovic backhand wide, 3-2. Djokovic volley winner, 3-3.
Djokovic forehand winner on the angle, 3-4. Nadal volley missed long, terrible mistake, 3-5. Nadal drop shot winner, 4-5. Djokovic ace, 4-6. Djokovic hustles to a Nadal drop shot and flicks a forehand down the line, Nadal can't get the ball back in time and the world No 1 takes the set, 4-7.
Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 6-6 Djokovic*
Djokovic overhead winner, 30-30. Djokovic hits a forehand too short and it is punished by a Nadal forehand winner, deuce.
Set point Nadal as Djokovic puts a defensive forehand into the net. Gutsy tennis by Djokovic to hit a perfect drop shot winner.
And into a tiebreak we go as Nadal nets a backhand.
Nadal* 6-3, 3-6, 6-5 Djokovic
Nadal double fault, 15-15. Djokovic backhand long, 30-15. Fabolous return and another big forehand from Djokovic, 30-30.
Nadal forehand long, 30-40. Break point Nadal. Nadal overhead winner. Remarkable get by Djokovic then a chase back to lob Nadal, who nets a baseline overhead. Break point Djokovic.
Nadal forehand winner down the line. Trademark stuff. Nadal ace to hold.
Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 5-5 Djokovic*
Djokovic volley winner, 15-0. Nadal forehand long, 30-0. Djokovic forehand into the net, 30-15. Nadal backhand winner, 30-30. Another big point coming up.
Nadal forehand winner down the line, break point. The tension couldn't be higher. Djokovic backhand wide. Nadal breaks.
Nadal* 6-3, 3-6, 4-5 Djokovic
Nadal ace, his fifth of the match, 30-0. Stunning Djokovic backhand down the line winner, 15-30.
Nadal just catches the line with a forehand winner down the line. Millimetres in that.
Nadal holds and jogs to his chair. Can Djokovic hold next?
Just past 10pm local time and the curfew comes into action at 11pm in Paris...
Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 3-5 Djokovic*
Djokovic gets to 30-0 then puts a loose forehand into the tramlines, 30-15. Then a backhand flies wide, 30-30.
Great defence by Nadal and Djokovic nets a forehand. This is insane. Break point Nadal. Time violation for Djokovic after taking too long to serve.
Big Djokovic forehand into the corner, deuce. Then a backhand down the line winner. Djokovic backhand wide.
Nadal backhand long and he's disgusted. And Djokovic escapes with the break consolidated.
Nadal* 6-3, 3-6, 3-4 Djokovic
Djokovic forehand winner to start the game. Then Nadal nets a forehand and put a forehand into the tramlines. Three break back points.
Nadal forehand into the net. Great response by Djokovic but that was awful from Nadal.
Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 3-3 Djokovic*
Djokovic forehand winner, 15-15. It's 9.40pm in Paris right now. Could be a late finish if this continues.
Djokovic attempts a serve and volley but it passed by Nadal, 15-30. Djokovic lobs Nadal but the Nadal hits a backhand which clips the net and Djokovic can't react in time. Two break points.
Nadal nets a backhand on the first. Then on the second, sensational shot making by both players and the point ends with a Djokovic forehand winner. Djokovic tries to get the crowd going and they love it. Deuce.
Djokovic backhand into the net, third Nadal break point. And Nadal does get it done with a forehand winner.
Nadal* 6-3, 3-6, 2-3 Djokovic
Wow. Big moment potentially as Nadal misses with an overhead. 15-30. Two break points or Djokovic as Nadal puts a backhand long.
Djokovic just fails to get a drop shot over the net. Massive point coming up.
Nadal ace down the T. Deuce. Third break point of the game as Nadal misses with a backhand.
Nadal drop shot into the net. Djokovic breaks and leads for the first time in the match.
Djokovic is yet to hit an unforced error in the set so far.
Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 2-2 Djokovic*
The ideal service game from Djokovic. After the intensity of second set, the level has dropped slightly. The calm before the incoming storm perhaps.
Nadal* 6-3, 3-6, 2-1 Djokovic
Lovely forehand drop shot winner by Djokovic, 15-15. Vintage Nadal forehand winner after dragging Djokovic all over the court, 30-30.
Deep Djokovic backhand into the corner and Nadal can't get it back in play. Break point Djokovic. Saved with a classic wide serve + forehand winner combo.
Nadal forehand into the net, second break point. Djokovic forehand wide, deuce.
And Nadal holds to see out the danger.
Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 1-1 Djokovic*
Nadal's 16th forehand winner, 15-15. Djokovic hit back with a backhand winner of his own, 30-15.
A second ace of the match for Djokovic is well timed as it allows him to hold serve.
Third set: Nadal* 6-3, 3-6, 1-0 Djokovic
Nadal took a very long break to change clothes and Djokovic isn't happy.
Just ticked over the two hour mark and Nadal holds to 15.
Nadal 6-3, 3-6 Djokovic*
Oh my, Djokovic will be wondering how he lost this point as Nadal passes him with an audacious backhand winner, 15-30. Nadal then nets a backhand, he's furious with himself.
Break point Nadal. Saved by a Djokovic forehand winner. Nadal backhand into the net, set point, Djokovic.
And he takes it to level up the match.
Nadal* 6-3, 3-5 Djokovic
Cross court Djokovic backhand return winner. Nadal didn't even move, 15-15.
Nadal drills a forehand winner into the corner, 40-15. And his most comfortable hold is sealed as Djokovic puts a forehand wide.
Nadal 6-3, 2-5 Djokovic*
Djokovic drop shot winner, 15-15. Djokovic backhand long, 15-30. Great defence from Nadal and Djokovic puts another backhand long. Two break points. These rallies are so brutal.
Djokovic saves the first with a drive forehand winner. And then the second as Djokovic puts a backhand well wide. Deuce.
More unreal defence by Nadal and Djokovic inexplicably nets a backhand overhead. Break point Nadal.
Nadal nets a backhand. And Djokovic holds agains. Breathtaking tennis.
Nadal* 6-3, 2-4 Djokovic
Djokovic cross court backhand winnner to start the game then an overhead winner, 0-30. Pressure on the Nadal serve again.
Djokovic pushes Nadal wide and gets another error from the 13-time champ. Three break points.
Nadal saves the first with a forehand winner. Then the second after Djokovic comes out on top in a duel at the net. Huge point coming up.
Djokovic gets the break as he pushes Nadal wide with his backhand and gets the error.
Nadal 6-3, 2-3 Djokovic*
Djokovic nets a drop shot, 30-15. Nadal backhand into the tramline, 40-15. And a backhand into the net completes a strong hold for Djokovic.
Nadal* 6-3, 2-2 Djokovic
Service holds aren't coming easy for Nadal. A forehand error makes it 30-30. But a swinging serve down the T followed by an overhead winner gets the job done.
And he levels up when Djokovic nets a forehand.
Nadal 6-3, 1-2 Djokovic*
Djokovic backhand long, 0-30. Then a forehand long, three immediate break back points.
Nadal forehand winner down the line. The Spaniard breaks right back.
Nadal* 6-3, 0-2 Djokovic
Djokovic seems to be getting on top in the rallies more. He draws an error from Nadal on the opening point.
Then Nadal puts a backhand long, 0-30. Another error gives Djokovic three break points.
Nadal saves the first with a drop shot winner. But not the second as Nadal puts a forehand wide.
Djokovic has now won five of the last six games.
Second set: Nadal 6-3, 0-1 Djokovic*
Nadal never lost a best-of-five clay court match from a set up. That is the scale of the task facing Djokovic now.
But he makes the ideal start here, holding to love.
Nadal* 6-3 Djokovic
Back to back unforced errors by Djokovic, 30-0. Another miracle lob by Nadal draws the error from Djokovic.
Three more set points. Djokovic saves the first. Then the second as this time Nadal goes long with a lob.
Nadal forehand into the net. Wow. A seventh set point as Djokovic's return goes just long. And after 59 minutes, Nadal finally gets the job done as Djokovic nets.
A gripping set of tennis.
Nadal 5-3 Djokovic*
Nadal on the attack as he whips a forehand winner past Djokovic, 0-30. Good response from Djokovic to hit his own forehand winner. Djokovic ace, 30-30.
Djokovic backhand long, third set point for Nadal. Djokovic overhead winner to save break point.
Then a forehand winner. And Djokovic does hold to force Nadal to serve it out for the second time.
Nadal* 5-2 Djokovic
Chance for Djokovic as another Nadal's forehand clips the net and flies wide, 0-30. Djokovic drop shot winner, two break points.
Nadal saves the first with a wrong footing forehand winner, 40-30. Djokovic backhand long, deuce. Set point Nadal after a forehand winner. Djokovic overhead winner.
Outrageous overhead winner by Nadal just as the ball looked to be going over his head. Nadal backhand into the net, deuce.
Nadal forehand long, break point. A third Nadal double fault and Djokovic gets one of the breaks back.
Nadal 5-1 Djokovic*
Better from Djokovic as he drills a backhand winner down the line, 30-15. Nadal then puts a forehand long, 40-15.
But responds with a forehand winner. Djokovic holds for the first time as Nadal nets a forehand.
Nadal* 5-0 Djokovic
Djokovic backhand return just misses the baseline, 30-0. He can't find his rhythm.
Nadal double fault, 30-15. Djokovic backhand long, 40-15. Nadal's backhand clips the net and flies wide, 40-30.
Great serve again and Nadal holds.
Nadal 4-0 Djokovic*
When these two players met last year, Djokovic lost the opening set 6-0. He falls to 0-30 here.
Nadal then pulls a forehand wide, 15-30. But Djokovic pulls a backhand well wide. Two more break points for Nadal.
And he breaks as Djokovic dumps a poor forehand into the net.
Nadal* 3-0 Djokovic
Bit of fortune for Nadal as his forehand drop shot clips the net and drops on Djokovic's side, 30-0.
Second Nadal ace of the match, 40-0. Djokovic puts a return long and Nadal races into a 3-0 lead.
Nadal 2-0 Djokovic*
Beautiful backhand winner to start by Djokovic. Followed by a double fault. Nadal forehand winner down the line, 40-30. Then a Djokovic drop shot into the net. Deuce.
Djokovic tries another drop shot but Nadal reaches it and flicks a forehand past the Serb for a winner.
And Nadal break as Djokovic fails to put away two overheads and is punished as the 13-time champion passes him with a forehand.
First set: Rafael Nadal* 1-0 Novak Djokovic (*denotes server)
Nadal won the toss and opts to serve first.
Djokovic backhand winner as he chases down a Nadal drop shot, 30-30. Nadal nets a backhand, break point Djokovic. Nadal ace. Deuce.
Both men going toe-to-toe on the baseline and as both players know this game could set the tone for the whole match.
Terrible overhead by Djokovic after a great lob but Nadal holds after a nine minute game.
This is what happened the last time Nadal and Djokovic met in a Grand Slam semi-final
We have our first finalist...
“I’m confident,” Djokovic said. “I believe I can win, otherwise I wouldn't be here.”
Stefanos Tsitsipas leads Alexander Zverev 4-1 in the fifth set. It has been a competitive, topsy turvy match between the two men.
How it stands...
Hello and welcome to the match we've all been waiting for ever since the draw was made two weeks ago.
It has been a couple of years since we have seen a true “Big Three” humdinger at a grand slam. So, the 58th tour meeting of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal is inspiring excitement and anticipation. Nadal is almost unbeatable at Roland-Garros, with a win-loss record of 105-2.
Yet he will be all too aware that the only active player to have overcome him here was Djokovic, in the 2015 quarter-finals. Now, it is worth remembering that 2015 and 2016 were Nadal’s wilderness years. His tennis went through a kind of midlife crisis in the build-up to his 30th birthday, as he lost not only his confidence but the pop he usually puts on the ball. In the circumstances, we could place an asterisk against Djokovic’s one-sided 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 win that day.
The same could be said of Robin Soderling’s victory over Nadal in 2009 – a season when he was simultaneously battling knee trouble and digesting news of his parents’ separation. Has anyone ever beaten a full-power Nadal at the French Open?
The simple answer is no. Still, Djokovic looks to have a shot today, as long as he can maintain the quality of stroke play that ousted Matteo Berrettini in Wednesday’s quarter-final. Logic suggests that mortality will eventually catch up with Nadal, who turned 35 last week. Djokovic is only 11 months younger, but has had significantly fewer injury worries over the years. He loves making history, and a victory on Wednesday would certainly stand high up his CV.
The winner of this match will face the winner of the first semi-final between Stefanos Tsitsipas vs Alexander Zverev which is currently taking place.
You can follow that match here.