The organizers of Roland-Garros have tried something else this year: they played in the men’s final on a Friday. At least that’s what I felt this afternoon at Roland Garros. In a superb withdrawal, Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 in four hours and 22 minutes to qualify for the final at Roland Garros.
Seed number one in Paris, Djokovic has held a slight record of victories in the previous 57 meetings in his career against Nadal. But that does not detract from the magnitude of this upheaval. Beating 13-time champion Nadal at Roland Garros is something that has only been done twice since 2004 and Djokovic knows the difficulty better than anyone. The clay king held a 105-2 record in Paris and a 7-1 record against Djokovic at Roland Garros. At the 2020 French Open in October, Djokovic offered little resistance to Nadal and lost in straight sets. It looked more like the same for the first 20 minutes on Friday, as Nadal took a 5-0 lead. But then, as if we were watching an action hero movie, Djokovic regained his confidence and footwork, and recovered from that slow start, to win the second, third and fourth sets.
The match stats are almost irrelevant as Djokovic made Nadal hit the equivalent of four winners for each one he actually scored, so ruthless was his defense. In the end, Djokovic simply had more reserves than Nadal, and after taking a break early in the fourth set, he stifled any rally chance, closing the game by winning the last five games.
Regardless of Nadal’s withdrawal from Roland Garros – the event he has owned for nearly two decades – it’s hard to ignore the bigger story at stake. (Djokovic has yet to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat German Alexander Zverev 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 in the other semi-final, but the 22-year-old will play in his first major final.) If the Serb can support the withdrawal of Friday with another victory, he will move into a major career Nadal and Roger Federer — 20 (Federer), 20 (Nadal) and 19 (Djokovic) in the all-time majors race. The fact that he got closer to all events and knocked out Nadal has huge implications for GOAT beyond the two major swings that depended on Friday’s semi-final game. It’s easy to get carried away in the moment and declare things to be “the best ever”, but it has to be considered one of the all-time tennis eliminations and a classic game. It’s just a shame that there was a semi-final and the winner still has to win one more game to win the title.
After the relaxation of the curfew in Paris, it was the largest crowd to date at Roland Garros. And even if the stands were not full, it still seemed to be. The fans lucky enough to be in the stands, as well as the folks at home, realized that they were not only watching a great tennis match, but tennis history.