In a stunning takedown, Novak Djokovic defeated “The King of Clay” Rafael Nadal 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 in the French Open semifinals on Friday in Paris, marking a crucial moment in tennis history.
The French Open organizers tried something different this year: they played the men’s final on a Friday. At least that’s what it felt like this afternoon at Roland Garros. In a stunning takedown, Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 in four hours and 22 minutes to advance to the French Open final.
The top seed in Paris, Djokovic has held a slight winning record in the 57 career prior meetings against Nadal. But that doesn’t undercut the magnitude of this upset. Beating the 13-time champion Nadal at the French Open is something that has been done only twice since 2004—and Djokovic knows the difficulty better than anyone. The King of Clay held a 105-2 record in Paris and a 7-1 record against Djokovic at the French Open. At the 2020 French Open in October, Djokovic offered little resistance against Nadal and lost in three straight sets. On Friday, it looked like more of the same for the first 20 minutes, as Nadal took a 5-0 lead. But then, as if we were watching an action hero movie, Djokovic found his confidence and his footwork, and recovered from that slow start, to win the second, third and fourth sets.
The match stats are almost irrelevant because Djokovic made Nadal hit the equivalent of four winners for every one he actually notched, so ruthless was his defense. In the end, Djokovic simply had more reserves than Nadal, and after going down an early break in the fourth set, he smothered any chance of a rally, closing out the match by winning the last five games.
Quite apart from the takedown of Nadal at Roland Garros—the event he’s owned for almost two decades—it’s hard to ignore the greater history on the line. (Djokovic still needs to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Germany’s Alexander Zverev 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 in the other semifinal, but the 22-year-old will be playing in his first major final.) If the Serb can back up Friday’s takedown with another victory, he will move within one career major of Nadal and Roger Federer—20 (Federer), 20 (Nadal) and 19 (Djokovic) in the all-time majors race. That he inched closer at this of all events and by taking down Nadal has huge GOAT implications beyond the two major swing that hinged on Friday’s semifinals match. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and declare things “the greatest ever,” but this has to go down as one of the all-time tennis takedowns and a classic match. It’s just a pity was a semifinal and the winner is still obligated to win one more match to capture the title.
After the curfew in Paris was eased, this was the biggest crowd to date at Roland Garros. And while the stands weren’t filled, it still felt like it. The fans lucky enough to be in the stands, as well as people at home, realized they were watching not just an outstanding tennis match, but tennis history.