Djokovic dethrones 'King of Clay' Nadal

·3-min read

Novak Djokovic has ended king of clay Rafael Nadal's unreal French Open reign, producing an almost superhuman performance to finally knock out the 13-time champion in one of the game's most spellbinding matches.

After a semi-final duel of almost indescribable brilliance on Friday, the world No.1 Djokovic set up a final date with Stefanos Tsitsipas by becoming the first man to beat Nadal twice in his Roland Garros kingdom, finally prevailing 3-6 6-3 7-6(7-4) 6-2.

Their 58th duel was another gladiatorial clash for the ages, so astoundingly good that the Court Philippe Chatrier crowd was even granted special governmental dispensation to stay on after the Paris-wide curfew to watch the denouement.

There'd have been a riot if they'd been kicked out after an amazing third set, which in itself lasted an hour-and-a-half, had they not been able to witness what felt like the end of an era as the 35-year-old Nadal was beaten at Roland Garros for only the third time in 108 matches.

"It was an unbelievable match, the finest I've ever played here in Paris," Djokovic told the crowd.

"I was very happy that there was no curfew at 11pm. We both wanted the crowd to stay; just one of these nights and matches that you will remember forever, the kind of matches we still continue to play tennis for," he added later.

"Definitely one of the top three matches in my entire life. I'm overjoyed right now."

The incredible duel between two 30-something warriors with 38 slams between them even outshone a terrific five-setter between two younger guns tipped to one day supplant them, as Tsitsipas was left tearful after defeating Alexander Zverev 6-3 6-3 4-6 4-6 6-3 to reach his first slam final.

The 22-year-old, emotional at being the first Greek player ever to make a grand slam final after repelling Zverev's stirring comeback, said afterwards: "It's time for me to go for my chances. I'm looking forward to the challenge."

But 34-year-old Djokovic's epic four hour 11 minute win, even more extraordinary after the way he'd been battered from pillar to post in the opening set, will make him overwhelming favourite to take a 19th grand slam title in Sunday's final.

Nadal, whose last loss at Roland Garros had been to Djokovic six years ago, began in the same destructive mode that saw him destroy the Serb in the 2020 final, racing into a 5-0 lead with the world No.1, just as last year, contemplating the humbling prospect of being fed a 'bagel' set.

Yet gradually finding his unerring accuracy, Djokovic battled back to 5-3 and saved six set points before Nadal could finally nail down the opener after just under an hour.

The world No.1, though, began to boss the match in the second set, playing at an extraordinarily high level - and it had to be as Nadal made every point a brutal exercise, even earning two break points at 5-3 down before Djokovic could level affairs.

The third set, featuring point after point of amazing intensity and more twists than an Agatha Christie novel, saw Djokovic save a set point with a great drop shot before Nadal put his hands to his head in agony after a decisive missed sitter of a volley in the subsequent tiebreak.

Nadal hit back, as everyone expected, to race into a 2-0 lead but Djokovic, who had discomfited Nadal for most of the match by taking time away from him and using that rapier backhand to strike winner after winner, somehow found an even higher serving gear.

Ultimately, Nadal, who'd been fairly wondrous himself having clouted 48 winners to Djokovic's 50, did seem to have the stuffing knocked out of him as he lost the last six games in increasingly deflated fashion.

"Well done for him. Have been a good fight out there. I try my best, and today was not my day," shrugged Nadal.

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