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

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal shake hands after their quarterfinal match at the 2022 French Open
Djokovic leads 30-29 in the neck-and-neck race between the two greats, but Nadal leads 20-8 on clay
Events: May 22 – June 5 Venue: Roland Garros, Paris
Cover: Live text and radio commentary from selected matches on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, the BBC Sport website and app

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

Nadal, who is targeting his 14th title, made a brilliant start, fending off resistance from defending champion Djokovic to win 6-2 4-6 6-2 7-6 (7-4) at Roland Garros.

Nadal secured the win at 1:15 local time after over four hours on the pitch.

The 21-time Grand Slam winner now meets third-placed Alexander Zverev on Friday.

Germany’s Zverev, 25, reached the semifinals for the second straight season after surviving the rebellion of teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz earlier on Tuesday.

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

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

Victory for fifth seed Nadal avenged his semi-final loss to Djokovic last year and extended his all-time record on the Roland Garros clay court to 110 wins in 113 games.

The rivalry between the two is the most enduring in men’s tennis, with Nadal winning his 59th meeting and closing the gap to 30-29 in head-to-head.

“Nadal has shown why he is a great champion and has stayed mentally strong. Without a doubt he deserves it,” said Djokovic.

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

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

The fast start pays off for Nadal

In front of an enthusiastic crowd, Nadal clinched another memorable win on the court where he enjoyed the greatest successes of his career.

Late last year the Spaniard thought he would have to retire with 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-breaking 21st Major win at the Australian Open.

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

Nadal blew Djokovic away with quick starts in both of the pair’s games at Roland Garros in 2020 and 2021 and although those games ended in different results, he wanted to do the same this time.

The left-hander played superbly in the opener, pushing Djokovic back onto the court and punishing him with hissing forehand winners.

Nadal converted two of his four break chances while saving both from Djokovic to win a 50-minute opening set.

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

This created the platform for Nadal to finally achieve a record 15. to reach the semi-finals at Roland Garros.

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

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

Djokovic can’t take any chances

While Nadal was struggling with fitness, Djokovic’s season was put on hold as he wasn’t allowed to play at the Australian Open and tournaments in the United States due to not being vaccinated against Covid-19.

The 20-time Grand Slam winner seemed on course for his peak form of winning the title in Rome and then not dropping a set at Roland Garros ahead of the quarter-finals.

Many had thought that playing the game in colder night conditions would also benefit the Serb.

Maintaining his sky-high level proved the problem for Nadal in last year’s semi-final against Djokovic but the Spaniard broke again to take a 3-0 lead in the second set.

As temperatures began to drop, Djokovic began to warm up and fought his way back to level at 3-3 after a sixth game that lasted almost 19 minutes.

Lengthy plays with few routine holds continued and the set eventually tipped in Djokovic’s favor when Nadal cracked a long forehand on the second set point.

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

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

Nadal broke up early in the third set to take a 4-1 lead when a double fault from Djokovic was followed by the Serb pulling a crosscourt backhand wide.

That was Nadal’s sixth break from Djokovic’s serve from 15 opportunities, and he served for a two-set-to-one advantage with few problems.

Although time passed around midnight in Paris and the temperature dropped to around 10C, few fans decided to leave and many of those who stayed were wrapped in blankets.

Djokovic went 2-0 early in the fourth but missed two set points on serve at 5-3 and was punished when Nadal hit a crosscourt forehand winner to put the set back into serve.

Most of the 15,000-strong crowd supported Nadal and their patience was rewarded as he dominated the tiebreak to claim a stunning win.

Leading 6-1 in the breaker, Nadal earned his fourth match point with a propelling backhand down the line before absorbing applause from a cheering Chatrier.

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