French Open: Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic in late-night thriller

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal shake hands after the French Open 2022 quarterfinals
Djokovic has a 30-29 head-to-head lead between the big two, but Nadal leads 20-8 on clay.
Dates: May 22-June 5 Event: Roland Garros, Paris
Coverage: Live text and radio commentary of selected matches on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, the BBC Sport website and app

Rafael Nadal once again proved why he is the greatest player in French Open history by beating rival Novak Djokovic in a late-night thriller to reach the men’s singles semifinals.

Nadal, in search of a 14th title, started superbly and fought off resistance from defending champion Djokovic to win 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4) at Roland Garros.

Nadal secured victory at 1:15 am local time after more than four hours on the court.

The 21-time Grand Slam winner now faces third seed Alexander Zverev on Friday.

German Zverev, 25, reached the semi-finals for the second year in a row after surviving a comeback from teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz on Tuesday.

“To win against Novak there is only one way: play your best from the first point to the last,” said the 35-year-old Nadal, who thanked the Paris crowd for showing their “love”.

“This is one of those magical nights for me.”

Fifth-seeded Nadal’s victory avenged his semi-final loss to Djokovic last year and extended his all-time record on the clay at Roland Garros to 110 wins in 113 matches.

The rivalry between the pair is the longest running in men’s tennis, with Nadal winning their 59th meeting and reducing the gap to 30-29 in heads-up.

“Nadal showed why he is a great champion and he stayed strong mentally. He certainly deserves it,” Djokovic said.

“He was a better player in important moments, he started well and I didn’t start so well.

“I gained momentum in the second set and I thought I was back in the game. But he was able to take his tennis to another level.”

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BBC tennis correspondent Russell Fuller

This was an exciting and captivating match with some fierce hitting and also human frailty on display.

The plot twists were numerous and surprising: Djokovic especially faded away in a fourth set that he had led 5-2.

Perhaps the lack of intense games cost him. After all, he missed the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami and hadn’t played a match of more than three sets since the US Open semifinal in September.

Nadal’s 29th victory over Djokovic will only be truly significant if he goes on to win a 22nd Grand Slam title. And don’t consider for a moment that a paperwork now even with Djokovic and Alcaraz are out of the draw.

The 35-year-old has spent eight and a half hours on the pitch in his last two matches and will welcome an extra day of rest ahead of Friday’s semi-final.

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Fast start pays dividends for Nadal

In front of an adoring crowd, Nadal scored another memorable victory on the court where he has enjoyed the greatest successes of his career.

Late last year, the Spaniard thought he would have to retire due to a chronic foot problem and was hampered by the problem at the Italian Open earlier this month.

A stress fracture of the rib also caused him to miss two months of the season shortly after his record 21st win at the Australian Open.

Despite turning 36 later this week and needing five sets to beat Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday, he dug into his physical and mental reserves to beat top seed Djokovic.

Nadal defeated Djokovic on fast starts in both of the pair’s matches at Roland Garros in 2020 and 2021 and though those matches ended with different conclusions, he set out to do the same this time.

The southpaw played magnificently in the first set, covering Djokovic on the court and punishing him with forehands.

Nadal converted two of his four break point opportunities, while saving Djokovic’s two, to win a 50-minute first set.

Hitting 12 game winners compared to six unforced errors was a complete contrast to his slow start in the previous round against Auger-Aliassime.

That set the stage for Nadal to eventually reach a record 15th semi-final at Roland Garros.

“It was an emotional night and I keep playing nights like this,” said Nadal, who won seven of 17 break points and saved eight of 12 for Djokovic.

“But it’s only a quarter-final and I still have a semi-final to come. I’ll stay emotionally stable and prepare for the semi-final.”

Djokovic unable to take risks

While Nadal has had fitness issues, Djokovic’s season was cut short by being unable to play at the Australian Open and tournaments in the United States because he was not vaccinated against covid-19.

The 20-time Grand Slam champion appeared to be on his way to his best form, winning the title in Rome and then not dropping a set at Roland Garros as he reached the quarterfinals.

Many thought that playing the match in the cooler conditions of the night would also favor the Serb.

Maintaining his sky-high form proved to be Nadal’s problem against Djokovic in last year’s semi-final, but the Spaniard broke again and took a 3-0 lead in the second set.

As temperatures began to drop, Djokovic began to warm up and battled back to draw 3-3 after a sixth game that lasted nearly 19 minutes.

Long games with little routine holding continued and the set finally swung in Djokovic’s favor when Nadal fired a long forehand on the second set point.

“He was the best player in the important moments, he started well and I didn’t start so well,” Djokovic said.

“I gained momentum in the second set and I thought I was back in the game. But he was able to take his tennis to another level.”

Nadal broke love early in the third set and took a 4-1 lead when a double fault from Djokovic was followed by the Serb dragging a backhand crosscourt wide.

That was Nadal’s sixth break serving Djokovic in 15 opportunities and he served for a two-sets-to-one lead with little trouble.

Even though it was past midnight in Paris and temperatures dipped to around 10C, few fans decided to leave and many of those who stayed were wrapped in blankets.

Djokovic broke for a 2-0 lead early in the quarter, but missed two set points when serving at 5-3 and was punished when Nadal nailed a forehand crosscourt to put the set back on serve.

Most of the 15,000 in attendance were rooting for Nadal and his patience was rewarded as he dominated the tie break for an impressive victory.

Nadal led 6-1 in the breaker and took his fourth match point with a backhand down the line before absorbing the cheers of a jubilant Chatrier.

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