PARIS — His dramatic and delightful French Open semifinal was 4½ hours old — and 14 games into the fifth set — when Rafael Nadal raced from the net to the baseline to retrieve Novak Djokovic’s seemingly unreachable lob.
Many players wouldn’t have bothered to give chase, let alone attempt what Nadal actually accomplished: With his back to the court, he somehow sent a lob the other way by flipping the ball between his legs.
Perhaps surprised the 11-stroke point was not already his, Djokovic flubbed an easy overhead smash into the net. Two games later, Nadal flicked another, more traditional, defensive lob, and Djokovic sailed his response 5 feet long, the earlier mistake no doubt on his mind.
Three points later, the blink-and-you-miss-something match was over.
In a contest chock full of lengthy exchanges, moments of mastery and occasional lapses by both men, seven-time French Open champion Nadal returned to the final with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 victory over the No. 1-ranked Djokovic on Friday.
By the finish, it was not just a test of skill but also of stamina and perseverance, two qualities Nadal possesses in abundance.
“This one is a special one,” Nadal said. “If we talk about everything that makes a match big, today we had all of these ingredients.”
Except, of course, a glistening silver cup for the winner and a runner’s-up tray for the loser. Those will be on offer Sunday, when Nadal faces David Ferrer in an all-Spanish final with a chance to become the only man with eight titles at any Grand Slam tournament.
“When you have a win and you have the trophy, it means more,” said Nadal, who will be seeking his 12th major championship overall.
The fourth-seeded Ferrer reached his first Grand Slam final by defeating France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-1, 7-6 (3), 6-2 Friday. The 31-year-old Ferrer, previously 0-5 in major semifinals, ended Tsonga’s bid to give the host country its first male champion since Yannick Noah in 1983.
“I want to enjoy this moment,” Ferrer said.
That’s understandable, given not only that this is his 42nd appearance in a Grand Slam tournament but also that his record against is Nadal is 4-19.
Then again, 17 of those head-to-head matches came on clay, and no one has been able to withstand Nadal’s relentless, will-sapping style on that surface. Nadal is 58-1 in his French Open career; the loss came to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009.
Nadal later said bad knees were partly to blame for that defeat. On Friday, he was wearing a thick strip of white tape below his left knee, which sidelined him for about seven months until February. Since returning, Nadal is 42-2 with six titles, reaching the finals of all nine tournament’s he’s entered.
“For us, it’s really a miracle,” said Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach.
At his best against the best of his era, Nadal is now 20-15 overall against Djokovic and 20-10 against 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer. He is 5-0 against each at Roland Garros.
“An unbelievable match to be part of, but all I can feel now is disappointment. That’s it,” said Djokovic, who lost to Nadal in last year’s final and still needs a French Open title to complete a career Grand Slam. “He showed the courage in the right moments and went for his shots. … I congratulate him, because that’s why he’s a champion.”
Djokovic’s coach, Marian Vajda, was asked Friday whether there is any bigger challenge in tennis than facing Nadal on his preferred surface.
“I don’t think so,” Vajda said. “He’s the King of Clay.”
Nadal is much more than, too, having won two titles at Wimbledon, and one apiece at the Australian Open and U.S. Open, where he finished off his career Grand Slam by defeating Djokovic in the 2010 final. Nadal and Djokovic have played 35 times, tied for the most meetings between two men in the Open era, and this one was exceeded in length, certainly, and quality, probably, by their 2012 Australian Open final won by the Serb in nearly six hours.
Friday, though, “was a real emotional match,” Nadal said.
There were bits of everything, including Djokovic’s running complaint — one he continued afterward — that the court was too dry and dusty on a sunny, 82-degree (28 C) afternoon and should have been watered.
Nadal shook his head when he was docked a point by chair umpire Pascal Maria for taking too much time before serving, at set point in the third, no less. Djokovic was warned for violating the same rule in the fifth set, up a break and serving at 4-3, 40-all. Right after, he ended a 15-stroke exchange with a volley smash winner, but his momentum carried him into the net, which players are not allowed to touch, so the point was awarded to Nadal, who eventually broke back there.
“Probably,” Vajda said, “the most decisive point.”
There were plenty to pick from.
Twice in the fourth set, Nadal was two points from victory but couldn’t close. Djokovic, whose returning and defensive skills are right there with Nadal’s, took 10 of the last 13 points of that set to force a fifth.
It began ominously for Nadal, who double-faulted on the second point and hung his head, then dropped a forehand into the net to get broken. That’s when he asked Maria to tell the sometimes-rowdy spectators to hush during play. Fans saluted some points with standing ovations; they filled the air during changeovers with competing chants of “Ra-fa!” and “No-vak!”
Just when it seemed the semifinal-that-felt-like-a-final could go on in perpetuity, each player able to summon something spectacular when necessary, Djokovic blinked. There were those two missed overheads, the second making it love-15 as he served while down 8-7. Nadal then delivered a cross-court backhand passing winner at a sharp angle for love-30. Two of the shortest points followed, the pattern the same: serve, return, Djokovic forehand long.
That was it. Nadal broke at love. In the end, he won by making fewer mistakes than Djokovic, whose official count of 75 unforced errors — 29 more than his opponent — was inflated because of Nadal’s unrivaled ability to cover the court and stretch points, forcing a player to hit shot after shot after shot.
Djokovic did what he could to stay away from Nadal’s uppercut of a topspin-lathered, left-handed forehand, but it’s tough to stick to strategy as the points — and racket swings — pile up. By the AP’s count, 54 of the match’s 335 points lasted at least 10 strokes (Nadal won 28 of those).
“I knew that both of us would give everything we’ve got, physically and mentally, in order to win,” said Djokovic, who was determined to win his first French Open title to honor his childhood coach, Jelena Gencic, who died last weekend in Serbia. “I gave my best. I really did.”
Wasn’t quite enough. Almost never is against Nadal in Paris.