Novak Djokovic seemed well on his way to yet another ho-hum victory, yet another French Open final, yet another matchup against rival Rafael Nadal. And then, suddenly, what had been a gallop became a grind.
Slightly more than two hours into his semifinal against Stefanos Tsitsipas on Friday night, Djokovic was serving for the match, one point from ending things in straight sets. Just. One. Point. But a down-the-line backhand veered a tad wide, Djokovic rolled his eyes and, eventually, he was stuck in a serious situation, somehow pushed to five sets.
As is usually the case, though, he was up to the task when it mattered the most. Djokovic got back in gear down the stretch to hold off the much younger, much less accomplished Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 to reach his fifth title match at Roland Garros.
“I stayed calm on the surface," Djokovic said, "but deep down, it was a totally different matter."
Standing in the way of No. 1 Djokovic, a 33-year-old from Serbia, on Sunday at Court Philippe Chatier — he is pursuing a second trophy there and 18th from all Grand Slam tournaments — will be, as it’s been so often, No. 2 Nadal, a 34-year-old from Spain.
It will be their 56th meeting, the most between two men in the professional era (Djokovic leads 29-26), 16th at a major (Nadal leads 9-6) and eighth at the French Open (Nadal leads 6-1).
“It's his house,” Djokovic said.
In addition to closing in on an unfathomable 13th French Open championship with a 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (0) win over 12th-seeded Diego Schwartzman, Nadal now gets a chance to tie Roger Federer for the men’s record of 20 Slam titles.
Nadal said it’s fine for others to discuss about such matters, but his focus remains squarely on the task at hand.
“I’m playing the most important tournament of the year — that’s what motivates me,” he insisted.
While Nadal dealt with the slightest tension late in his third set Friday, everything became more interesting at that juncture for Djokovic against Tsitsipas, a 22-year-old from Greece in his second major semifinal.
Djokovic served for the win at 5-4, holding that match point at 40-30. He would require another 1 hour, 45 minutes to finish the job.
That one misstep left the door a bit ajar, and Tsitsipas barged through. He got his first break all match when Djokovic sent a forehand long, making it 5-all. Tsitsipas broke again to steal that set when Djokovic netted a forehand, then got things to a fifth.
What changed? Tsitsipas began pushing forward more, taking the action to Djokovic, whose misses began to increase with less time to properly calibrate.
Also notable: the massive swing in success on break points.
Djokovic started by converting 4 of 5, then went through a stretch where he was 1 for 13.
Tsitsipas, in contrast, began 0 for 10, then went 4 for 5.
After the fourth set, Djokovic changed socks and shoes, and Tsitsipas got a medical visit for a check of his left leg.
“I believe my body was not ready,” Tsitsipas acknowledged afterward. "Physically, I wasn’t really there."
Djokovic is now 32-10 in five-setters, and 216-1 when taking a two-set lead in Grand Slam matches (the lone loss came at the 2010 French Open against Jurgen Melzer).
Tsitsipas? Only 2-4 in five-setters.
Maybe it made sense, then, that Djokovic, so reliant on drop shots all match and all tournament, used a perfect one to break for a 2-1 lead in the fifth. That became 4-1 when Tsitsipas double-faulted.
“I feel, I can say, happy — and, at the same time, sad,” Tsitsipas said.
Djokovic is now 37-1 in 2020, the only setback coming via a disqualification at the U.S. Open last month.
“For sure, he has reached almost perfection, Novak, in his game style, the way he plays," Tsitsipas said, "which is unbelievable to see, honestly.”
Nadal improved to 99-2 at the French Open — go ahead, read that again — including a combined 25-0 in semifinals and finals, as he seeks a fourth consecutive title in Paris.
He has won all 15 sets he’s played over the past two weeks, making a mockery of the supposed explanations for why this year, so different for so many reasons, might be different for Nadal in the City of Lights.
The shift in dates from May-June to September-October because of the pandemic, bringing cooler weather. New, slightly heavier, tennis balls. Nadal’s decision to skip the U.S. Open, leaving him with only three matches since tennis resumed in August.
Then there was this: Schwartzman upset Nadal in straight sets on clay at the Italian Open last month.
The late-afternoon sun at Court Philippe Chatrier created awkward shadows over much of the court and blinding brightness at one end, prompting Schwartzman to flip around his backward baseball hat so the brim could shield his eyes.
Only 1,000 spectators are being allowed on the grounds daily, owing to the rising COVID-19 cases in France, and the sparse crowd on hand was cheering for Schwartzman late in the third, when he kept that set close.
By the end, fans were chanting, “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” as they have so many times in the past.
“You can’t pretend to be in a final of Roland Garros without suffering. That’s what happened there,” Nadal said about the tight third set. “But I found a way, no?”
So, too, did Djokovic.