It took four hours and 37 minutes, but Rafael Nadal emerged victorious in the French Open final-that-wasn’t, beating Novak Djokovic, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7, to set up a return to the actual Roland Garros final.
Tennis these days has a superlatives problem, manifested not least in the rush to proclaim any match between the big guns a ‘classic’ as soon as it enters a fifth set, but if this match lacked quality for long stretches, the long fifth set—despite its somewhat abrupt and anticlimatic ending—left nothing to be desired in dramatic terms.
Both players had wandered in and out of focus throughout the match, playing for periods like blurry versions of their best selves. Djokovic was the first to lose intensity after a promising opening two games, perhaps jarred by the first of a few unlucky stumbles at 1-2 on Nadal’s serve. His backhand, particularly down the line, kept misfiring, and in a player whose distinguishing characteristic is paradoxically the completeness of his game, the result was a somewhat unbalanced forehand-to-forehand duel which dominated much of the match. Nadal, by contrast, was unleashed, playing exuberantly, and his down-the-line forehand was stunning throughout.
Having raced to a set-and-break lead, at 3-2 in the second set the balance suddenly shifted. Nadal started to miss and Djokovic began to return was his usual strength. Still playing too cautiously in the rallies, Djokovic broke again for the set, only to find himself on the wrong end of the seesaw, producing an abject third set.
Moving stiffly between points, Djokovic made three forehand errors at 3-3 in the fourth and gave up what should have been the crucial break, when suddenly he loosened up and started to play, as he so often does with his back against the wall. He hit three gorgeous backhands to break back, then recovered a subsequent break as Nadal served for the match at 6-5. Taking an early lead in the tiebreak as Nadal served into the wind, Djokovic extended the match to Nadal’s first five-setter since returning from his long injury break and the kind of genuine, serious, extended challenge Rafa has so rarely faced in his long reign at Roland Garros. This was uncharted territory.
Still primarily a forehand battle, Djokovic’s backhand started to impose itself more and he broke to begin the fifth. With the majority of points falling to the player who was first to attack, there was no room for caution and little for patience. But once again, as soon as a player fell behind, he started to claw his way back.
At 1-3, despite a disastrous net approach and a double fault, Nadal held to keep the deficit to a single break; held to 15 at 2-4; then produced two sensational down-the-line forehand winners for a chance to break Djokovic’s serve at 4-3. The Serb saved one chance—but gave up his opponent life when he ran forward for an overhead volley and, in his eagerness not to let the ball bounce and risk Nadal’s phenomenal defense getting it back, carelessly touched the net before the ball bounced twice. But whether that moment of inattention was haunting him or not, he put a forehand into the net points later to surrender his lead.
Back on serve, the players forged into games beyond 6-6, exchanging largely comfortable holds inside the Philippe Chatrier pressure-cooker. Something had to give and—not for the first time in the match—it was Djokovic’s overhead smash, which smacked into the net for 0-15 on his serve at 7-8. Given the sniff of an opportunity, Nadal pounced, picking Djokovic off at net with a backhand cross-court passing shot. It was the last real moment of magic in the match, as Djokovic—who had been arguing with umpire Pascal Maria for the past two changeovers about the state of the court—put two relatively routine forehands long to lose, relegating his ongoing quest to capture the Roland Garros title to an uncertain future.
Nadal, on the other hand, has now reached the final in all nine of the tournaments he’s played since his comeback and retained supremacy over his most dangerous rival in the heartland of his territory. It’s a good day’s work.