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Top 10 Moments of 2021: Djokovic, Nadal pause the pandemic
In front of an enraptured French crowd, the game's greats stretched past the country curfew to play the best match of the season.
Published Dec 16, 2021
4. Djokovic and Nadal pause the pandemic
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal played a French Open semifinal so thrilling, it could almost be said it paused the pandemic.
The two legendary rivals were contesting one of the most important meetings of their careers, and had just wrapped up an electrifying third-set tiebreak that brought the pandemic-capacity crowd of 5,000 spectators to their feet. But the clock was ticking. It was now twenty minutes to 11 p.m., when a government-imposed curfew would come into effect across Paris. As Djokovic and Nadal towelled off and prepared to start the fourth set, it looked as if one of the most significant encounters in the history of the sport would finish in a silent stadium.
"We won't go, we won't go," some of the crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier had already begun to chant when the tournament announcer hesitantly walked on court holding a microphone. But as he started to speak, the boos turned into cheers. "Ladies and gentlemen -- in agreement with the national authorities, the match will finish in your presence," he said.
Shouts of ''Merci Macron" rang from the stands, thanking Emmanuel Macron—and whether or not the French president gave the nod himself from the G7 summit in Cornwall that evening, he is known as a big tennis fan.
Officials said spectators were allowed to stay in recognition of the special circumstances surrounding the match—not to mention the distinct possibility of a riot if they been ordered to leave.
Either way, the occasion was worthy of the exception. Rarely has so much history been on the line. Nadal was aiming to increase his Grand Slam count to a record 21, a full two-thirds of which would have come at Roland Garros, while Djokovic was going for Grand Slam title No. 19 and would in a few weeks tie the record himself by getting his 20th at Wimbledon.
The tennis itself was fitting. An uneven start had given way to a pulsating, fascinating contest—Nadal throwing forehands and scrambling deftly despite the foot injury that would soon finish his season, while Djokovic pounded his opponent's backhand and slowly took control of the court.
The evening sunshine had still been streaming through the court when they walked on for their 58th meeting on tour. By the time the Serb won 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2, it was dark and they had played four sets and more than four hours.
As Djokovic lifted his arms in triumph, he heard the roar of the crowd—a crowd that would not have been there if not for all Djokovic and Nadal have achieved in their careers, and all they were vying to achieve that evening.
"It is surely the greatest match I have played here in Paris. It is also the best atmosphere and ambiance and energy," Djokovic said.
It also highlighted what has been perhaps the defining element of the tennis season—the return of crowds. Often considered just a backdrop, their presence no longer goes unnoticed.
The decision to allow fans to stay for the semifinal was like giving them a reprieve from the pandemic. And for others watching at home around the world, having them there provided something similar.