- French Open, Day 13
Nadal edges five-set classic to vanquish Djokovic
Nadal has still only ever lost once at Roland Garros - but he came mighty close to doubling that figure on Friday, as Djokovic pushed him all the way in an eventual 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7(3) 9-7 win for the Spaniard.
Nadal will now face David Ferrer in Sunday's final as he bids to become the first player in the modern era to win the same grand slam tournament eight times.
"It's very special for me," Nadal, whose record at the event now extends to 58 wins and one loss, said afterwards. "Every match is very special here - it is difficult to find that in many places."
The first set - in truth, the first set and a half - underlined why Nadal has such a stellar record in Paris. Djokovic held the opening service game of the contest to love but after that no game was as easy; his opponent turning the screw at every opportunity with brutal forehand shots that seemed laser-guided towards the lines.
Djokovic, in contrast, seemed to be slightly struggling with the conditions, later complaining to the referee that the surface on Court Philippe Chatrier was slippery underfoot. And it was perhaps that slight uncertainty that cost him as Nadal broke at 3-3 - a backhand down the line engineering an opening, one Djokovic would hand over to his rival with an overhit shot that never had any prospect of finding the baseline.
The second set started in similar fashion, the two players proving almost inseparable. But it was Djokovic again who would crumble first, the Serbian moving a set and a break down at 2-2 after a woeful attempted drop-shot; Nadal pouncing on the heavy-handed effort to power home a passing strike.
Djokovic seemed to blame his racket for that error, making an immediate substitution. Whether the effect was psychological or physical is hard to tell, but the Serbian certainly started to find more joy - immediately breaking back after a marathon service game that saw Nadal save the first two break opportunities.
Now it was the world No. 1 in the ascendancy. He duly held in his next game before breaking once again - firing down a forehand winner after Nadal had handed him the opening with his own failed attempt.
Serving for the set Djokovic made no mistake, restoring parity after a hard-fought 49 minutes.
Having struggled so manfully to get on terms, however, a slice of bad luck - and poor officiating - would put him on the backfoot once again. Facing a break point in his opening service game of the third set, he unleashed a backhand that appeared to clip the line on its way through. The line judge called it out, however, and so did the umpire - after leaving his chair to check the mark.
HawkEye would later show both decisions were wrong, however - not that Nadal was fussed.
After Nadal held for 3-0, Djokovic then left the court - seemingly for a comfort break, rather than treatement to any ailment. But his play was certainly anything but sparkling upon his return, Nadal racing through the set to move one step closer to victory - Djokovic only avoiding a bagel with a virtually irrelevant service game late on.
The fourth set was a different matter entirely. Twice Nadal broke to move within touching distance of the final, and twice Djokovic pegged him back. The second was the most important - the Serbian raining down booming forehand after booming forehand to deny Nadal as he tried to serve for the match.
Faced with the prospect of going out of the competition, Djokovic seemed to find greater freedom in his shot-making - with a certain 'all-or-nothing' approach reaping rewards as he forced the tiebreak. It was a recipe he wisely decided to replicate in that breaker, edging into an early lead and holding firm to force a fifth set.
In effect, we were into a one-set shootout - but it was Djokovic with all the momentum. The Serbian broke immediately after his opponent fired a backhand into the net (although he complained bitterly that the initial shot had been long) and then, after a ten-minute struggle, consolidated that on his serve - opening up a 2-0 advantage where it could easily have been back to 1-1.
At 3-1 Nadal again had to dig deep to protect his serve, escaping after Djokovic produced an increasingly rare unforced error. Two more games went with serve but then it was Djokovic's turn to feel the pressure, as he fell into a 0-30 hole. Two break point chances came and went but Nadal took the third - Djokovic putting back-to-back shots into the net as parity was restored once again.
That set up a fraught conclusion, although initially neither player gave an inch. Twice Djokovic was forced to serve to stay in the tournament and twice he rose to the occasion - serving to love for 6-6 as the contest effectively entered sudden death.
At 7-8, however, the Serbian fell apart - and was afforded no chance to make amends. Nadal successfully held and then only needed to pass the materials as Djokovic masterminded his own demise, firing a straightforward smash long (not for the first time in the contest) before overhitting three forehands in succession, as Nadal picked up his 58th victory at Roland Garros.
One more, and he will hold the record for most wins in the tournament. If it comes on Sunday, it will be one record of many.