Novak Djokovic came from a set down in a spellbinding French Open semi-final to inflict only a third ever defeat on the Parisian clay for Rafa Nadal, moving through 3-6 6-3 7-6 (4) 6-2 in front of raucous crowd on Friday.
Nadal, bidding for a record-extending 14th French Open title, won the first five games of the match as he looked on course to repeat his drubbing of the Serb in last year’s final.
But world number one Djokovic seized the momentum, winning the second set and then edging a pulsating 97-minute third set on a tiebreak, having saved a set point.
The soccer-style atmosphere created by a crowd of around 5 000 inside Court Philippe Chatrier reached a crescendo towards the end of the third as the Paris COVID-19 curfew loomed.
Thankfully, the Parisian authorities saw sense and granted an extension to the 11pm cut-off meaning a magnificent and brutal contest could continue to be graced by a live audience.
But there was to be no reprieve for the 35-year-old Nadal as his seemingly inexhaustible resolve was finally broken.
He hung on like the true champion he is but Djokovic, looking fresh despite four hours slugging it out with the world’s greatest ever clay courter, ruthlessly closed in.
After breaking for a 4-2 lead the end came quickly as he inflicted first defeat on Nadal at the French Open since he beat him in the 2015 quarter-final.
Djokovic will play Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final with the chance to move to 19 Grand Slam titles, just one behind the men’s record 20 held by Nadal and Roger Federer.
Both players produced almost superhuman efforts as a record-extending 58th duel between the two warriors arguably rivaled anything they had produced against each other since their first meeting in 2006.
It was only the eighth time in all their matches that the player losing the first set had gone on to win and Djokovic now leads their rivalry 30-28.
His celebrations after claiming victory were low-key, a far cry from the manic reaction to his win over Matteo Berrettini on Wednesday — a mark of the respect he holds for Nadal.
While in 2015 his straight sets win was slightly asterisked by the fact Nadal was struggling to recover from injuries, this time he did it the hard way.
“First I want to say it is a privilege to be on this court with Rafael Nadal,” Djokovic said on court.
“The biggest match I have ever played here in Paris. Also the best match with the best atmosphere for both players.
“To win against Rafa on this court you have to play your best tennis, and tonight I played my best tennis.”