Plus ca change. For all that Novak Djokovic came into form at exactly the right time, for all the emotional inspiration he took from the death last weekend of his first coach Jelena Gencic, for all his pre-match declarations that he would triumph… Still he could not prevent Rafael Nadal winning his 58th match out of a career 59 at Roland Garros, and the Spaniard remains on course for his eighth title. In a see-saw semi-final as strange as it was extraordinary, Nadal emerged the 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7 victor in four hours and 37 minutes. Five times Djokovic has faced his foe at the French Open, and to date he has emerged with a net haul of nothing at all.
Under sizzling sun which seemed bound to favour Nadal, the opening games had an intensity which promised much. When Nadal held to love for 3-3 it felt merely as if the Serb was taking a breather from the battle after 35 minutes’ entrenched play. But in the next game Nadal forced a succession of break points, and on the third Djokovic sent the ball long. At 5-3 Nadal whipped a crosscourt forehand for set point; and then his return left Djokovic with nowhere to go.
At the start of the second the Serb was roaring with frustration, although it was Nadal who at 1-2 received a warning from umpire Pascal Maria for time violation as he prepared one of his signature twitch-ridden services. Next game Djokovic seemed thrown off balance by the force of Nadal’s play and it opened a break point. Djokovic showed Nadal too much of the ball and the Spaniard sent it down the line. He was a set and a break up, and a previously unthinkable straight-sets victory seemed possible. Djokovic was shouting at his team, gesturing wildly – and out of nowhere he levelled with the aid of a beautiful drop shot, this time bellowing in celebration, then broke again for 5-3. Minutes later the set was his.
The third set looked odds-on to be a belter, yet having won four straight games Djokovic immediately lost five. For half-a-dozen Nadal service games the only point next to the Serb’s name was the penalty awarded against Nadal for another time violation. The crowd was near-silent in disbelief. Djokovic won just 12 points in the entire set.
When Nadal broke for 2-0, it felt as if nothing could prevent a four-set win. Yet Djokovic levelled – and did so again at 3-4 and 5-6. Typical of this see-saw match, in the breaker he eased away and sealed it by leaving Nadal floundering at the net.
Into the final set, and by now everyone knew better than to attempt any forecast. A dazzling forehand return lined up an immediate break for Djokovic, and the Spaniard flung everything at his opponent in his desperation to level. At 3-4 Djokovic received his own warning for time violation on service. He saved two break points but a third was too much. On they went until at 7-8 Djokovic punched a forehand long for three match points; when he repeated the mistake this extraordinary match was done.
"This was a really emotional match, that's the truth," said Nadal. "I lost a match like this in Australia. This one was for me. I'm more than happy about the way I fought in the fifth, after losing a big chance in the fourth. Djokovic always comes back. [To win a match like this] you need to love the game. You need to love what you are doing and appreciate every moment. I have learned to enjoy suffering in these matches, because what is much harder is to be [injured] at home in Mallorca, watching these matches on TV."
Djokovic could not hide his disappointment.
"[Nadal] showed courage in the right moments and went for his shots," he said. "That's why he's a champion, and why he's ruled Roland Garros for so many years. In my opinion, the court was too slippery. I asked for it to be watered. It was difficult to change direction. I just don't understand. I think that it's wrong, what they did. I wanted this title so much, so I am disappointed. It's not the end of the world. The feeling is not great at the moment, but I have years in front of me. I will come back, and I will keep on trying to win it."