Nadal beats Djokovic in epic French Open semi-final
Rafael Nadal will bid for an eighth French Open title on Sunday after a remarkable five-set victory over Novak Djokovic in Paris.
The pair have had some great battles over 35 meetings but this may have been the best of the lot as the match swung first to Nadal and then to Djokovic before the Spaniard finally came through 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7 (3/7) 9-7 after four hours and 37 minutes.
Nadal was 4-2 down in the final set having been two points from victory in the fourth but refused to be beaten and leapt with joy as he celebrated his 58th win at Roland Garros from 59 matches.
Djokovic had won the last time they met, ending Nadal's long winning run in Monte Carlo, but he knew doing the same here was another matter entirely.
Djokovic began with purpose on a hot Parisian day, fizzing groundstrokes off the clay, but Nadal's forehand cranked into gear midway through the set and a break for 4-3 proved enough.
Djokovic knew the start of the second set was crucial to his hopes. In the second game, he had 30-30 but hit a backhand wide and roared in frustration.
And it was Nadal who broke through again for 3-2 with a simple pass after Djokovic, not for the first or last time, threw in an ill-advised drop shot.
Djokovic was muttering to himself as he retook his seat but at least he was threatening now and he brought up his first break points immediately, taking the third when Nadal missed a routine forehand. Djokovic had his tail up and he broke through again, Nadal betraying signs of nerves with an untimely double fault.
The match-up is good for the Serb, with Nadal's cross-court forehand, the scourge of so many opponents, playing to his strength, his backhand.
Mentally, Djokovic is also one of the very few players who can cope with Nadal's intensity and throw it straight back at him.
At the start of the third set the momentum was certainly with Djokovic but, after winning the first point of the second game, he appeared to clutch at his left leg.
The Serb did not call the trainer but the change in his play was absolute. From 30-0 in that game, he lost 16 of the next 17 points, and only narrowly avoided a love set.
The only concern for Nadal was a time violation, his second of the match and therefore a point penalty, but given it came at 5-1 40-0, it was not really of benefit to Djokovic.
Nadal was furious but he was routinely going over the allowed 20 seconds between points, so it seemed rather arbitrary when he was being punished.
Djokovic had to rouse himself, and he did, matching his opponent until 3-3 in the fourth when Nadal broke through again.
The end appeared nigh given the drop off in the Serb's level, but the wind was favouring one end and he took advantage to break back.
Remarkably, it was the same story when Nadal broke again to serve for the match at 6-5. He got to 30-15, but Djokovic won three points in a row to force the tie-break, his forehand suddenly the key shot rather than his opponent's.
The top seed won four of the first five points, and this time the change of ends was not decisive, Djokovic breaking through Nadal's defences to clinch the tie-break with a drilled forehand the Spaniard could only lift into the net.
It really was an incredible comeback from Djokovic, and it was to get better as he forced three break points in the opening game of the decider and took the third.
Having been two points away from victory, Nadal faced digging himself out of a hole, and dig he did, conjuring up shots only he can play to hold for 2-3 under great pressure.
Remarkably, the greatest drama was to come. In the eighth game, Nadal forced a break point, missed it and let out a rare anguished cry that betrayed his desperation.
Djokovic received a time violation, then the Serb lost a point he should have won because he touched the net, and finally Nadal levelled at 4-4.
Suddenly the pressure was right back on Djokovic as he served to stay in the match at 4-5, and at 30-30 Nadal was two points away again, but the world number one somehow kept his cool at a moment of extraordinary tension.
On and on they went, with Djokovic becoming increasingly upset that the court was not being swept and watered to make it less slippery.
And finally the Serb cracked, a forehand error giving Nadal his first match point and another one handed the Spaniard a quite astonishing victory.