Two classic semi-finals and a change of heart by the French pandemic authorities, a boisterous crowd and excellent weather all helped to ensure that the French Open, the second grand slam of the season, reached its Sunday climax with the appropriate fanfare
It’s hard to find words bigger than all the superlatives you can think of for Rafa’s achievements in Roland Garros. He has been the most dominant player of Roland Garros history. He lost two, now three times, in his entire career,. He’s been playing here almost 20 years. That achievement speaks for itself. The amount of wins that he has made on this court is incredible. Each time you step on the court with him, you know that you have to climb Mount Everest to win against this guy here. Novak Djokovic
.While everyone expected the defending and 13-time champion to be striding out onto Court Philippe Chatrier to add to his already incredible Roland Garros record, it is not to be. His main rival, the world number one Novak Djokovic managed to find the key to unlock the King of Clay’s defences and inflict the third loss the Spaniard has suffered on the famous Parisienne surface.
In what was a classic, nail biting confrontation between two tennis alpha males, Djokovic won the pulsating match after four-hours and 22-minutes, 3-6 6-3 7-6(4) 6-2 and become the first player ever to beat Nadal twice at Roland Garros and the first to do so after the quarter-final stage.
After the match, Djokovic could hardly contain his delight.
“Definitely the best match that I was ever part of in Roland Garros,” the Serb said. “And top three matches that I’ve ever played in my entire career, considering quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where he has had so much success and has been the dominant force in the past 15-plus years, and the atmosphere, which was completely electric. For both players, a lot of support. Just amazing.
“It’s hard to find words bigger than all the superlatives you can think of for Rafa’s achievements in Roland Garros. He has been the most dominant player of Roland Garros history. He lost two, now three times, in his entire career,” Djokovic added. “He’s been playing here almost 20 years. That achievement speaks for itself. The amount of wins that he has made on this court is incredible. Each time you step on the court with him, you know that you have to climb Mount Everest to win against this guy here.”
It had certainly been a bit of a roller-coaster of a match but lived up to the ‘blockbuster’ build up it had received over the past week or so.
At the start Nadal looked set to be steam-rollering his rival much like he did in last October’s French open final, by sweeping into a 5-0 lead with Djokovic looking a bit out of sorts until he got a break back.
He lost that opener but towards the end of it he seemed to have shrugged off the lethargy which he appeared to be suffering as he broke Nadal to take a 2-0 lead in the second, That lead was short-lived but he regained it for 4-2 and held off three break points to hold off Nadal, who also had two chances of levelling when Djokovic served out at 5-3.
Now, with everything to play for in the third, the pair entered a heavy slugfest over 90-minutes in attempts to gain an advantage. There were three straight breaks of serve, then another and when Djokovic tried to serve it out at 5-4, 30-0, Nadal found that extra gear to stop him which brought the 5,000 Covid restricted crowd noisily to its feet for the umpteenth time.
In the electric atmosphere pervading the court, Nadal held for 6-5 saving two break points in the process. Djokovic then held in the next by saving a set point and forcing a tie-breaker where he ran off with five consecutive points from 2-3 down to establish a two-sets to one lead.
By now the crowd were getting impatient with 20-minutes to go before the 11.00pm curfew and were surprised when an announcement came over the public address system revealing the championships had been granted a reprieve. All spectators within the stadium were free to stay until the end of the match. Common sense had finally prevailed and fans showed their appreciation loudly.
Djokovic, who had left the court to change his shirt in what he believed would be a break to evacuate fans, returned and quickly went down a break 2-0. Incredibly, Nadal wouldn’t win another game. Following a medical visit to fix some tape on his foot, Nadal got steam-rollered, lost his advantage and had to watch his rival put together six consecutive games to sweep into the final – his sixth at Roland Garros and 29th at a major.
“I was feeling good mentally, physically. I was motivated. I had a really clear plan in tactics, what I needed to do in order to perform better than I [did] in last year’s final,” Djokovic said. “The beginning of the match was kind of resembling last year’s final, but I just managed to get myself back into the first set. Even though I lost it, I felt like 3-6 down, I found my game.
“Even though I didn’t have such a great start, I was not too nervous, because I felt like I was hitting the ball very well,” he added. “It was just a matter of me working my way into the match and adjusting to his ball, which is completely different than any other player’s ball. The amount of spin he plays with from the forehand corner, it’s tremendous. But I was ready.”
“No doubt he deserved to win,” said Nadal who had won his last 35 matches at the French Open and was a perfect 26-0 once he got to the French semi-finals,
“I had the big chance with set point, 6-5, second serve,” Nadal added. “Anything could happen in that moment. Then I make a double-fault, easy volley in the tiebreak.”
“It’s true that, have been crazy points out there. The fatigue is there, too.
“These kind of mistakes can happen. But if you want to win, you can’t make these mistakes. So that’s it. Well done for him. Have been a good fight out there. I try my best, and today was not my day.”
After his 30th career win over Nadal, Djokovic now has his sights set on a second Career Slam and a 19th overall Slam. And to do it, he’ll have to get past a man he needed five sets to beat last year, Stefanos Tsitsipas who had earlier in the day, come through a tight five-setter to reach his first Grand Slam final.
Stefanos Tsitsipas became the first Greek to reach the final of a Grand Slam and fulfilled the predictions of many pundits to actually reach this year’s French Open championship round from the bottom half.
To achieve that goal, he held off Alexander Zverev 6-3 6-3 4-6 4-6 6-3 in three-hours, 37-minutes in what was another roller-coaster of a match.
The Greek ace took command from the opening moments, breaking Zverev early and while the German recovered to lead 3-0 in the second, his serve let him down
at various crucial points and he lost six consecutive games.
A final place for Tsitsipas looked secure when leading by two set to love only for Zverev to finally find his game and power to blast his way back into contention by claiming the next two sets to level.
At one point in the third, when 5-3 up and 15-all, Zverev unleashed a furious rant at the umpire as to whether the callwhich was overruled, had come after he had made a shot, demanding a replay.
“I was here; I was here, I was here. How do you know that? You cannot tell me the call came before the shot,” Zverev protested.
“I hit a squash shot. I could’ve hit a normal shot. You’re telling me I had no chance of putting that ball into the court?
“You’re telling me I had no chance? That’s b******t. You’re telling me I had no chance of putting the ball into the court?
“Tell me, did it come before I hit it? Did I hit it with the middle of the racket?
“Do you think I could’ve made that shot if I hit it normally over the net without the call? I hit it full power into the net. I didn’t even try to hit it back.”
It was all futile but it certainly fired him up.
In the fifth, with momentum on the German’s side, Zverev had an early break chance with Tsitsipas serving 0-40 but he failed to convert, from which point Tsitsipas regained complete control to run off with the match.
The fifth seeded Greek, who leads all player in match wins this season with 39, hit 36 winners to 43 unforced, won 52% of his second serves and broke Zverev five times.
“It was nerve-wracking and so intense in the first game of the deciding set,” said Tsitsipas. “I came back and I stayed alive. I felt the crowd with me, they were cheering me and giving me their energy. I still felt that there was hope and a chance to fight back. The only thing I could do is fight. It was very emotional and this win means a lot. It’s the most important one of my career so far.”
Zverev, who still hasn’t defeated a Top 10 player in a Slam, was far from happy in just making th
e last four at the French.
“I’m not at a stage anymore where great matches are something that I’m satisfied with. Today, nothing. I lost. I’m not in the final. Was it a good match? Yes. But at the end of the day, I’m going to fly home tomorrow. There’s nothing positive about that,” said Zverev who finished with 11 aces, seven double faults and won just 40% of his second serves.
“I don’t particularly care about semi-finals,” he added. “Might sound bad in a way or might sound arrogant. I’m not trying to be arrogant. I’m just saying it how it is. I wouldn’t have cared about a final either, to be honest. I didn’t win the tournament. Wimbledon is in two weeks’ time and I’m looking forward to that.”
The 22-year-old Tsitsipas is looking forward to his first Slam final.
“It means a lot. It was a difficult match. It was a match full of emotions, full of so many different phases that I went through. So, in the end, it was just such a big relief I was able to close it in such a good way. It was just exhausting,” Tsitsipas said.
“It was difficult to handle all of these things and put them together, kind of compromise on some others. I was able to deliver and close the match when I had to. I’m proud of myself.”
Looking ahead at the final, Djokovic is no doubt expecting it to be a very nervy occasion as Tsitsipas debuts at a major final. He also knows he has a winning record against the Greek having already beaten hm five times in seven meetings..
“I know what I need to do. Obviously Tsitsipas, first time in the final of a Grand Slam,” Djokovic said. “For him it’s a great achievement, but I’m sure he doesn’t want to stop there. He’s in great form. I think he leads the rankings, race rankings this year. He’s had his best results overall. I think he matured as a player a lot. Clay arguably is his best surface.
“We played an epic five-setter last year in the semis here. I know it’s going to be another tough one. I’m hoping I can recharge my batteries as much as I can because I’m going to need some power and energy for that one.”