RAFA NADAL sensationally dethroned Novak Djokovic as the French Open champion in a five-set chiller as he edged closer to an unprecedented Slam No 22.
It was gone 1am in Paris by the time these two sporting supermen laid down their rackets at the end of a pulsating quarter-final at Roland Garros played amid plunging temperatures.
The decision to stage this match so late at night will be rightly debated and criticised but for now, a tired Nadal won’t care as he progressed to a semi-final against Alex Zverev on his favourite court on Friday.
Djokovic’s time as defending champion is over following Nadal’s extraordinary 6-2 4-6 6-2 7-6 victory, which bizarrely began in the month of May but ended in June.
And the world No.1 will have to wait and see if Nadal, already the record 21-time Grand Slam champion, potentially adds another major to his Mallorca mansion on Sunday.
The 59th meeting between these icons – a record for the men’s game – was never going to be a short affair and ended up taking more than four hours.
The conventional wisdom was that Nadal, 35, would struggle against his greatest enemy because this contest had been scheduled for the controversial night-time slot.
A tennis ball travels slower in cooler conditions and it was felt Djokovic would have the upper hand in the long rallies on this chilly evening.
Indeed Nadal’s camp made a concerted effort to request that this encounter – their first meeting in 12 months – should be scheduled for the warm afternoon sunshine.
Though he lost that pre-match battle, Nadal raced out of the blocks immediately, breaking Djokovic’s serve in an opening game that lasted ten minutes.
Few would have predicted beforehand the Spaniard would cruise into a 5-1 lead and be in complete control, his wicked forehand dictating the play.
When he took the first set thanks to 12 sublime winners, the crowd were in raptures as the sun was setting over the French capital.
It was the first set Djokovic, 35, had dropped this tournament, breaking a 22-set winning streak that went back to the Italian Open in Rome.
As omens go, it was a decent one for the Nadal fans – and there were lots on Court Philippe-Chatrier – because the winner of the opening set had gone on to clinch 50 of the previous 58 matches.
Djokovic, though, has always been a fighter and despite falling 3-0 down in the second set, he responded as he always done with grit and determination to level up.
This was not the classic that we had all expected – there were far too many errors and double faults for that – but at times it was still high-quality stuff.
Empty seats started to appear more and more in a third set won comfortably by Nadal as punters raced for the last Metros while those in the corporate boxes required blankets to keep warm.
Tensions rose on the court as Djokovic banged the net with his racket in the fourth net and Nadal argued with the umpire over a contentious call.
Though Nadal fell 5-2 down and saved two set points in the fourth set, the No.5 seed got his mojo back to prevail in the tie-breaker and show why he is really the King of Clay.
Djokovic smashes a forearm back to his Spanish rivalCredit: AFP
Nadal hits a backhand at Roland GarrosCredit: AFP
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