Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played the best match of the year in the 2013 French Open semifinal, a marathon five-setter, and history's greatest clay court player prevailed, beating No. 1 Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3-7), 9-7. Nadal ran his career record at Roland Garros to 58-1 and will play Sunday against either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or David Ferrer for his eighth career French Open title.
Tennis fans had been foaming at the mouth in anticipation of the match, but only those with the Tennis Channel on their dial were able to watch the first four sets, and only those on the East Coast were able to watch most of the fifth set on NBC.
The first set started off like all great heavyweight bouts do, with the combatants feeling each other out, building the intensity to a simmering boil, until Djokovic, who had already tweaked his right ankle twice this year, turned awkwardly on his left ankle. The very next game, Nadal got a break and cruised to a 6-4 set win the first major advantage.
In the second set, Djokovic wavered into the danger zone when Nadal broke his second service game. Djokovic was moving a little better, but Nadal was executing his serve to perfection, and putting so much spin on every shot that Djokovic looked off balance and overmatched. Then, with Nadal leading 3-2 and on serve, Djokovic turned into the aggressive hunter that has dominated hard court competition for the last three years. He shot with confidence and power, breaking Nadal to go to 3-3, holding serve, then breaking Nadal again with an incredible crosscourt forehand on the line to set up a winner, after which he let out a humongous roar, the loudest he ever got in the match. He won four straight games and won the set, 6-3.
The third set looked like it was in a different match. Nadal got an early break of Djokovic, went up 3-0 and got up 30-0 on Djokovic's serve. Whether it was the ankle or just an emotional letdown after the high of the second set, Djokovic wasn't moving nearly as well, giving up on points he could have gotten at full strength, and Nadal broke him and went up 4-0 in the set and didn't look back. Other than a bizarre time penalty on set point, this set was all-too-forgettable, and Nadal took it 6-1.
The last few games of the set, tennis fans caught a glimpse of a familiar sight from Djokovic. In a Grand Slam semifinal or final, as Djokovic senses a set is lost and he can still come back, he appears to reserve his energy so he'll be the fresher player in the fifth set. It wasn't clear if that's what he was doing or if it was the ankle, but there wasn't a person in the building who thought Djokovic would roll over in the fourth set.
And he wouldn't. The first point of the set was a harbinger for what would follow; a monstrous, 25-shot rally of shots with unthinkable power before Nadal hit what seemed like the match's first slice, catching Djokovic off balance and hitting a winner by him. The two would trade service games before Nadal got a huge break to go up 4-3, but Djokovic broke him right back and held his own serve.
At 5-5, Djokovic served to try to set up a break or a tiebreaker, and had game point, but he came up with unforced errors at the worst time. Nadal broke him, and set up a service game for the match. Always the battler, Djokovic didn't back down, and improbably managed to break Nadal right back, setting up a tiebreaker. Djokovic played what could only be described as flawless tennis during the tiebreak, taking several points on Nadal's serve, and taking the set 7-6 (7-3).
The fifth set was what turned this match from one of the best matches of the year to an all-time classic. Djokovic opened with a break of Nadal -- the first time that's ever happened to Nadal in a fifth set of the French Open -- and played superb tennis to hold his serve. The two traded service games before Djokovic tried to make it 5-3 on serve, when, with the game at deuce, he slammed an overhead winner but crashed into the net directly afterward. The rule in tennis is the ball has to bounce twice before a player can touch the net, so Nadal was awarded break point. Three points later, Nadal got his break, and the two titans were even again.
Back and forth they would go until Djokovic was on serve, down 7-8 in the fifth set. Djokovic had a few unforced errors, and Nadal found himself with three break points. He needed only one, as a Djokovic forehand went long, and Nadal took the set and clinched a spot in the final, 9-7. It doesn't matter how good the final is, it will not live up to the excellence that was this match. Undoubtedly the match of the year so far, it will go down as one of the greatest matches to ever have been played on the hallowed red clay at Roland Garros.