World No 1 Novak Djokovic inflicted just the third defeat of Rafael Nadal’s French Open dominance on a night of sporting drama to reach his sixth final at Roland Garros.
Djokovic, who also defeated Nadal in the quarter-finals in 2015, sealed a remarkable 3-6 6-3 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 victory against the 13-time champion in front of a football-style atmosphere on Court Philippe Chatrier.
Nadal had won all 13 of his previous semi-finals but, in a 58th match between the pair that was on a par with almost any that came before, Djokovic found the answers to the greatest challenge in sport to win an extraordinary semi-final.
In the final on Sunday, Djokovic will take on Stefanos Tsitsipas – winner of a five-set contest with Alexander Zverev earlier on Friday – when he can climb to within one title of the Spaniard and Roger Federer at the top of the all-time men’s Grand Slam standings and also become the first of the trio to win each tournament at least twice.
Nadal was given a long ovation as he made his exit from the court, leaving Djokovic to try to sum up what had just happened.
“The first thing I want to say is it was my privilege also to be on the court with Rafa in this incredible match,” he said. “It is surely the best match I have played here in Paris. It’s also the match with the best atmosphere, ambience and energy.”
Nadal won the first five games of the match as he looked on course to repeat his drubbing of the Serb last October for the loss of seven games.
But Djokovic seized the momentum, winning the second set and then edging a quite unbelievable 97-minute third set in arguably one of the greatest tie-breaks of all time, having saved a set point.
The crowd of around 5,000 reached a crescendo towards the end of the third set as the Paris COVID-19 curfew loomed.
And the biggest cheer of the night came with the announcement that the fans, who had been expected to be ejected, were in fact being allowed to stay, meaning the magnificent contest could continue to be graced by a live audience.
But there was no reprieve for the 35-year-old Nadal as his seemingly inexhaustible resolve was finally broken.
Djokovic was looking fresh despite nearly four hours slugging it out with the world’s greatest ever clay-courter as he ruthlessly closed in.
After breaking for a 4-2 lead the end came quickly as he inflicted first defeat on Nadal in six years.