Nadal on his way to No. 8 after epic semifinal win over Djokovic
PARIS -- Three thoughts on Rafael Nadal's 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 win over Novak Djokovic in the French Open semifinals on Friday ...
1. Tennis at its best. Nadal has won 58 matches against only one defeat at Roland Garros. Round be damned, the most courageous and most memorable of those victories came Friday in an insta-classic semifinal against his rival Djokovic.
When the draw came out, this likely -- inexorable, really -- match was bolded, circled and italicized. It lived up the considerable hype. This was an alley fight on clay, a pair of rivals trading their best handiwork for almost five hours. Nadal struck first, winning the first set. Nadal struck last, breaking Djokovic to consolidate a remarkable victory, among the most meaningful of his career.
In between there was everything imaginable in a tennis match. Offense, defense. Serving, returning. Court coverage like you've never seen. So many you-must-be-joking winners that you could serialize the highlights. Both players were cited for time violations. On a critical point, Djokovic touched the net and lost the point, tennis' answer to the Tuck Rule. Nadal hit a Globetrotters through-the-legs shot and won the point.
This felt like a karma boomerang for Nadal's knock-down, drag-out five-set loss to Djokovic in the 2012 Australian Open final. And adding to the breathtaking tennis were rhythms that defied logic.
• Nadal wins the set: Oh, he's the King of Clay, on his way to victory.
• Nope. Djokovic storms back to win the second set, reeling off four straight games. Djokovic is in Nadal's head. Djokovic in four.
• Nope. Nadal storms back to reel off five consecutive games to win the third set. Nadal is home free. Djokovic has checked out.
• Nope. Djokovic breaks Nadal as he serves for the match. He wins the set in a tiebreaker. Djokovic has all of the momentum.
Nadal showed why is the King of Clay. Djokovic showed why he will go down as a Mt. Rushmore player. Great rivalry. Great battle. Great day. Great sport.
"That's why he's a champion," Djokovic said. "That's why he's been ruling Roland Garros for many years, and for me it's another year."
2. Djokovic's resiliency on full display. Before Djokovic walked into the pre-tournament media conference, the masses were addressed a functionary: Kindly, don't mention the draw to Novak.
Translation 1: Djokovic didn't want to know whether Nadal was on his side of the draw.
Translation 2: This rivalry is every bit as mental as it is about penetrating the court with the down-the-line backhand and having superior physical stamina.
Djokovic put himself in position to win -- and complete the ultimate Tennis Takedown, beating Nadal in Paris -- with an unholy mental effort. Time and time again, he simply would not go down. It occurred after he was broken in the second set. (He smacked his racket on his bag and then elevated his game.) It occurred after he lost the third set 6-1. He rallied, broke Nadal, nailing line after line, and then showed superior courage in a tiebreaker.
"It's been an unbelievable match to be part of, but all I can feel now is disappointment," said Djokovic, who has won every Grand Slam tournament except the French Open.
For a player once chided for being soft, he has become Nadal's equal in the guts/heart/spleen/stones department. Djokovic dedicated this event to his late first coach, Jelena Gencic. Though he didn't win this year, one suspects she would be proud of his effort.
3. Nadal protects his turf. I write this before the second men's semifinal, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga against David Ferrer. But, as predicted before the tournament began, the winner of the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal will be the favorite in the final. Now more than ever.
Nadal's record at the French Open should be a line from a comedy sketch. Since 2005, he's lost once. He's now a match away from an eighth title, something no male has ever done at any major. (These comical results extend to all clay events, by the way, as he's won Monte Carlo eight of 10 times, Barcelona eight of nine and Rome seven of nine.) This is his house and, to borrow from Under Armour, he protects it mightily.
The first year he won the French Open, in 2005, he defeated Roger Federer in the semis and then basically willed himself to victory in the final. There's no way I'm losing my match. (He didn't, beating Mariano Puerta 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5.) One suspects that after this epic defeat of Djokovic, he won't neglect to consecrate the win and take title huit on Sunday.