Rafael Nadal is known as the king of clay-court tennis, and he will have an opportunity to defend that title in this year's French Open, as he defeated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic by a score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 9-7 to advance to the final.
This will be Rafa's fourth consecutive appearance in the final at Roland Garros and his eighth final in nine years. The Spaniard has prevailed in each of those finals and will be a heavy favorite to win his eighth, as he'll meet either countryman David Ferrer on Sunday.
Ferrer defeated frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2, to advance to his first career Grand Slam final.
Nadal winning yet again is certainly the main headline, but Djokovic's effort shouldn't be discounted. He pushed Nadal to the limit at an event where Nadal has only lost once. That loss came back in 2009, as the Spaniard was shockingly ousted by Robin Soderling. Nadal would not be denied his fourth straight final, though.
Djokovic could have packed it in after dropping the third set decisively, but he threw everything he had at Nadal to win the fourth set and nearly pull off the win.
Nadal looked relieved to win the match after coming so close to slipping up, as shown by this photo captured by Roland Garros:
Here is how the exciting, five-set match played out on Court Philippe Chatrier, complete with analysis from across the web.
Nadal Needs Just One Break in First Set
Djokovic started the match confidently on serve as he went right after the seven-time French Open champion. The impressive Serb didn't falter one bit, as he held service at love to take a 1-0 lead, according to Roland Garros.
Rafa came back to tie the set at 1-1 on his serve, but it wasn't nearly as easy. Djokovic was actually able to get the game to deuce before Nadal ultimately held firm and found success in his first service game of the match, according to Roland Garros.
After Nadal's nervous hold of serve, Djokovic once again looked strong on serve as Nadal didn't offer much resistance. The Spaniard bounced back with a strong service game of his own, though, as he had a much easier time holding than he did his first time on serve.
Much like Nadal's first service game, Djokovic struggled to maintain his advantage with the set tied 2-2. Nadal held a 30-15 advantage and ultimately forced deuce; however, Nole showed nerves of steel and scraped together two consecutive points to regain the lead, according to Roland Garros.
While Nadal couldn't quite break Djokovic, the close call seemingly gave him confidence, as the king of clay looked dominant in his next service game. He had Djokovic moving all over the court and held at love for the first time in the match.
The first big momentum shift of the match came after Nadal held serve once again with Djokovic serving at 3-3. Nadal looked extremely dangerous and hit some fantastic shots both across the court and down the line. Thanks to a couple of monstrous first serves, Djoker was able to save two break points. Nadal proved to be too much, however, as Djokovic's shot sailed long and Nadal earned the first break of the match.
Nadal carried that momentum over to his serve, as he dominated Djokovic to hold at love. Nole didn't put up much of a fight as Nadal racked up his second ace of the match and then put an exclamation point on the game with a precise volley.
Although Djokovic was able to hold serve to make it 5-4 in favor of Rafa, Nadal made sure he didn't squander his opportunity to win the first set. The Spanish dynamo utilized a great mix of defensive acumen and offensive explosiveness to hold once again and take the first set of the match by a 6-4 margin.
As Juan Jose Vallejo of The Changeover pointed out, the winner of the first set in Nadal vs. Djokovic matches has won 85 percent of the time.
Winning the first set was big for Nadal, as he lost the first set in each of his first two matches in this tournament, so it was imperative to get things started off right against Djokovic.
Djokovic Battles Back to Level Match
After losing the first set, it was paramount for Djokovic to start the second with a hold of serve. Nadal offered some resistance once again, but Djoker didn't give in. His serve looked very good, and he was able to take a 1-0 lead just as he did in the first set.
Djokovic had Nadal in a precarious position in the following service game, as it was knotted at 30-all. Djokovic made a big error, however, as he hit a potential winning backhand well wide. Nole realized how big of a mistake it was, as he let out a primal scream in a show of frustration. Nadal quickly went on to earn a hold of his own.
The two competitors traded holds once again just as they did early in the first set. All it took was one mistake from Djokovic to decide the opening set, and it seemed like both men were waiting for one miscue to take advantage of in the second as well.
On Nadal's second serve of the game, however, umpire Pascal Maria issued him a time warning, according to Roland Garros.
Tennis Channel revealed that Rafa was taking an average of 30 seconds between each serve, so the umpire's warning was likely justified although Nadal didn't like it. Even so, the Spaniard held to make it 2-2.
Nadal made it abundantly clear that the umpire's involvement didn't rattle him as he once again scored the first big break of the set. Rafa was in control throughout Djokovic's service, as he dictated almost every point and once again found himself in the driver's seat, according to Roland Garros.
Fully realizing the predicament he had put himself in, Djokovic dug in and gave Nadal the most trouble he had faced all match long on serve. Djokovic earned his first break point of the match, but Rafa was able to stave off two of them. Nole's push-back promised to be too much, though, as he finally broke Nadal and got himself back in the match.
Nadal then gave Djokovic a run for his money after the break, but Djoker was unwilling to let momentum slip away once again. With a 40-30 advantage on serve, Djokovic cracked an ace and took a 4-3 lead in the set.
Djokovic then managed to win three consecutive games for the first time in the match as he broke Nadal once again. Nole pushed Rafa to deuce before an uncharacteristic double fault gave Djokovic the advantage. He made no mistake as he buried a forehand into the open court and took a commanding 5-3 lead.
After falling behind a break in the second set and appearing to be on the precipice of going down 2-0 in the match, Djokovic completed his second-set comeback as he held serve and evened the match.
Djokovic was able to answer the bell after losing the first set, so Nadal would then be forced to prove that he could do the same after losing the second.
Rafa Storms Back to Take Third Set
The third set nearly started in much the same way that the second set ended as Djokovic gave Nadal a run for his money. Djoker pushed Rafa to deuce, but the Serbian superstar missed an open forehand long, and Nadal was able to get back on track with a nervous hold to take a 1-0 lead in the swing set.
After a worrisome end to the second set for Nadal, the master of the French Open answered the bell early in the third. Thanks to an exquisitely played point, Rafa found himself with a break chance. Djokovic hit a shot that was originally ruled in, but Nadal asked the umpire to check the mark, and he changed his call, giving Nadal the game.
Upon further review, Hawkeye technology showed that Djoker's shot actually touched the line. Since the French Open doesn't utilize Hawkeye, however, the umpire's overturn was upheld, and Nadal took a 2-0 lead, according to Roland Garros.
After an easy hold of serve by Nadal, Djokovic called for the trainer and briefly left the court during the break before returning for his serve, according to Roland Garros.
While it is unclear if Djokovic left the court for treatment, to take a bathroom break or to turn the tide in some manner, it didn't appear to help him on the court. Nadal was once again the more energetic player on Djoker's serve and had little trouble breaking the Serb yet again to secure a stranglehold on the third set.
After securing a hold to go up 5-0, Djokovic offered his first measure of resistance in the set as he held serve as well to make it 5-1. The hold didn't seem to lift Djoker at all, though, as he missed an overhand smash to give Nadal a set point. Although the umpire penalized Nadal a point for slow play, the Spaniard was unflappable as he won the next point and took the third set, according to Roland Garros.
Djokovic had already picked himself up off the mat once in the match, but he had an even bigger task ahead of him following Nadal's decisive third-set win.
Djoker Shocks Nadal to Force Fifth Set
With Nadal in firm control of the match, Djokovic entered the fourth set knowing that he had to put forth a much better effort. He got off to a promising start as he held serve, which may not seem like much, but it was a victory for Nole, who had lost the first five games of the previous set.
Nadal matched Djokovic's hold with one of his own, but Djoker showed his mettle by holding once again. Djoker's second service game also featured the best point of the match as the two combatants traded shots at the net. Djokovic had a shot skip off the top of the net and land in before finishing off Nadal with a beautiful drop shot to take a 2-1 lead.
Nadal and Djokovic continued to trade comfortable holds of serve after that as Rafa completed a tidy service game to make the score 3-3 in the fourth set.
After neither man could gain an advantage for much of the fourth set, Nadal was finally able to strike the first blow. Rafa earned two break points against the Serb, and while Djokovic staved off one of them, a mishit doomed him and allowed Nadal to pick up the first break of the set and go up 4-3.
With Djokovic's back against the wall, he dug deep and broke Nadal just as he did in the second set. Losing that game likely would have meant losing the match for Djoker, but he changed the entire complexion of the match by evening the score at 4-4.
That break clearly energized Djokovic, as he held at love on serve. Nadal was unaffected by Nole's sudden surge, however, as he held at love as well and once again tied the set at 5-5.
Djokovic was unable to capitalize on his previous break, as two fatal errors allowed Nadal to break Djoker once again and take a 6-5 lead.
The Serb hit a seemingly easy forehand into the net to hand Rafa a break point and then hit another unforced error as his shot went long, and Nadal was given an opportunity to serve out the match.
Even with all odds against him, the world's No. 1 player was able to dig deep with arguably the greatest clay-court player of all time on serve. Djoker earned a break point and made no mistake as he extended the match and forced a fourth-set tiebreaker.
Nadal held a 5-4 lead over Djokovic in tiebreaks over the course of their respective careers and had never lost a tiebreak to Djoker at a Grand Slam before Friday, according to Roland Garros.
That meant nothing to Nole, though, as he jumped out to an early lead in the tiebreak. Djokovic started with the wind behind him, and tennis coach Sven Groeneveld estimated that he would have to win four out of the first six points to win the breaker.
Djokovic did exactly that and pushed the three-time defending champion to a decisive fifth set.
Bryan Armen Graham of Sports Illustrated captured the essence of Djokovic's effort well, as he called him perhaps the best battler in all of sports with his back against the wall.
In a match that was a test of wills, it is only fitting that it went the distance.
Nadal Outlasts Djokovic In Marathon Fifth Set
Djokovic clearly had the advantage entering the final set due to his fourth-set performance, but both men have been great in fifth sets over the years, according to ESPN Tennis.
After his incredible comeback in the fourth set, Djokovic continued to roll early in the third. He quickly took a 40-0 lead on Nadal's serve, and while Rafa was able to save two break points, Djoker didn't let his opportunity slip away as he picked up the break to go up 1-0.
Nadal threatened to break right back, but Djokovic showed nerves of steel as he rebuffed the Spaniard's advances and completed a hold to take an all-important 2-0 lead. Rafa labored a bit in his next service game, but he did hold and stabilize things a bit.
Djokovic held as well, and so did Nadal in the ensuing service game. Although Nadal scuffled and had to scratch and claw his way to a hold, he still protected his serve and stayed within a break of Djoker in the fifth set.
That hold didn't bother Djokovic as he held once again. Nadal completed a massive hold to stay hot on Djoker's trail as well to make it 4-3 Djokovic in the final set.
Like the champion that he is, Nadal managed to dig deep and break back to even the match.
It was a wild game for Djokovic, as he was given a warning by the umpire for taking too much time (like Nadal was earlier in the match) and then lost a point for touching the net, according to Roland Garros.
Djokovic's volley smash seemingly won the point, but his momentum carried him into the net. The ball must bounce twice before a player can touch the net, but Djoker's smash bounced just once before he made contact with the net, so the umpire was correct in awarding the point to Nadal.
After that huge break, momentum once again shifted in this see-saw affair as Nadal held serve and took a 5-4 lead. That hold put Rafa in position to potentially break his Serbian adversary yet again and book his place in the French Open final for a fourth consecutive year.
Nadal gave Djokovic a scare with Djoker serving to stay in the match, particularly when Rafa hit an incredible forehand lob that dropped on the baseline to tie the game at 30-30. Nole recovered, though, and held serve to continue the epic match.
Rafa once again put himself in position to possibly win the match as he held serve and punctuated it with an ace. Djokovic continued to battle just like he did all match long, though, as he held once again to make it 6-6.
Since there is no fifth-set tiebreak in the French Open, Nadal and Djokovic would have to battle it out until one of them won two consecutive games. It may not be a tiebreaker in name, but Nadal and Djokovic essentially entered overtime in their match, and it marked the first time they had ever done that head-to-head, according to Roland Garros.
Nadal held to go up 7-6, and Djokovic reciprocated, although he did have some nervous moments. Djoker led 40-0 on serve, but Nadal won the next two points, including a point where he executed a between-the-legs lob that Djokovic hit into the net. Nole recovered, though, and extended the match.
Following Nadal's hold, Djokovic could be seen discussing the condition of the court with the umpire. The Serb was annoyed, as he wanted the court watered and Maria refused to do so. It's possible that the annoyance affected Nole as he finally faltered in his next service game.
Djokovic missed a wide-open overhead shot once again and began spraying the ball all over the court. This allowed Nadal to break at love and win the marathon match to advance to the French Open final.
While this match wasn't a final, it was only a semifinal in name. Djokovic and Nadal are the two best players in the world, and they proved it on Friday. Neither man deserved to lose, but Rafa proved that he is still the king of clay.
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