PARIS – His dramatic and delightful French Open semifinal was 4½ hours old — and 14 games into the fifth set — when Rafael Nadal raced from the net to the baseline to retrieve Novak Djokovic’s seemingly unreachable lob.
Many players wouldn’t have bothered to give chase, let alone attempt what Nadal actually accomplished: With his back to the court, he somehow sent a lob the other way by flipping the ball between his legs.
Perhaps surprised the 11-stroke point was not already his, Djokovic flubbed an easy overhead smash into the net. Two games later, Nadal flicked another, more traditional, defensive lob, and Djokovic sailed his response five feet long, the earlier mistake no doubt on his mind.
Three points later, the blink-and-you-miss-something match was over.
In a contest chock full of lengthy exchanges, moments of mastery and occasional lapses by both men, seven-time French Open champion Nadal returned to the final with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 victory over the No. 1-ranked Djokovic on Friday.
By the finish it was not just a test of skill but also of stamina and perseverance, two qualities Nadal possesses in abundance.
“This one is a special one,” Nadal said. “If we talk about everything that makes a match big, today we had all of these ingredients.”
Except, of course, a glistening silver cup for the winner and a runner’s-up tray for the loser. Those will be on offer Sunday, when Nadal faces David Ferrer in an all-Spanish final with a chance to become the only man with eight titles at any Grand Slam tournament.
“When you have a win and you have the trophy, it means more,” said Nadal, who will be seeking his 12th major championship overall.
The fourth-seeded Ferrer reached his first Grand Slam final by defeating France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-1, 7-6 (3), 6-2 on Friday. The 31-year-old Ferrer, previously 0-5 in major semifinals, ended Tsonga’s bid to give the host country its first male champion since Yannick Noah in 1983.
“I want to enjoy this moment,” Ferrer said.
That’s understandable, given not only that this is his 42nd appearance in a Grand Slam tournament but also that his record against Nadal is 4-19.
Then again, 17 of those head-to-head matches came on clay, and no one has been able to withstand Nadal’s relentless, will-sapping style on that surface. Nadal is 58-1 in his French Open career.
“He’s the King of Clay,” said Marian Vajda, Djokovic’s coach.
Nadal is much more than that, too, having won two titles at Wimbledon, and one apiece at the Australian Open and U.S. Open, where he finished off his career Grand Slam by defeating Djokovic in the 2010 final. Nadal and Djokovic have played 35 times, tied for the most meetings between two men in the Open era, and this one was exceeded in length, certainly, and quality, probably, by their 2012 Australian Open final won by the Serb in nearly six hours.
Djokovic did what he could to stay away from Nadal’s uppercut of a topspin-lathered, left-handed forehand, but it’s tough to stick to strategy as the points — and racket swings — pile up. Fifty-four of the match’s 335 points lasted at least 10 strokes, with Nadal winning 28.
“I knew that both of us would give everything we’ve got, physically and mentally, in order to win,” said Djokovic. “I gave my best. I really did.”
Wasn’t quite enough. Almost never is against Nadal in Paris.