As Rafael Nadal double-faulted to surrender a straight-sets victory to Novak Djokovic on centre court at Roland Garros yesterday, you half-expected the red carpet to be rolled on the clay and the Coupe des Mousquetaires to be shuttled in.
Except Djokovic’s reward for finally defeating Nadal for the first time in seven meetings on that court and ending the Spaniard’s 39-match winning streak in Boulogne was simply a place in the semi-finals.
It was a dream 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 win for Djokovic and while it hasn’t earned him the elusive French Open trophy just yet, it feels like it has placed him infinitely closer it.
Nadal and Djokovic have faced off 44 times now, a match-up contested more than any other in the Open Era. And as much as they’re used being on opposite ends, they both agreed on one thing yesterday – that Djokovic is at the pinnacle of his career right now.
“Well, he has to win two more matches, but this match only increased the confidence. He's probably in the best moment of his career. He has a good chance to win here,” said Nadal, a nine-time champion in Paris.
Djokovic, looking to complete his career grand slam, knows he is ever-so-close to achieving his goal. But he’s also in a unique spot. After overcoming the toughest obstacle in his career thus far, he must gather himself and his thoughts and step on court tomorrow for a semi-final against Andy Murray.
But the Serb, who extended his winning streak to 27 consecutive matches, agrees with Nadal; he does feel like a man in his prime and is ready to go all the way.
“Everything coming together in my life and experiencing probably the pinnacle of my career, of my life, complete person, very satisfied on and off the court, and I think it all influences the results in my performance,” said Djokovic, who ended a four-match losing run to Nadal in grand slams.
In a match that had one player targeting a lifelong dream and the other protecting a historic legacy, it was the fire of the former that burned brighter from that start.
Djokovic leapt to a 4-0 lead, breaking Nadal for a second time on a sensational point that had dropshots, lobs and everything in between.
But what looked like one-way traffic soon got more competitive as Nadal fired a passing shot to get his first break point of the match. Djokovic gave him a thumbs up and gifted him back one of the breaks with a long forehand.
Nadal clawed his way back to 4-4, benefitting from a couple of horrendous volley misses from Djokovic along the way.
The Spaniard saved three set points in the 10th game to hold for 5-all but Djokovic got the best of him two games later, converting on his sixth set point to take the lead after 67 minutes of quality tennis.
The second set went on serve until Djokovic broke for a 5-3 lead and this time the world No1 did not blink twice. He served out the set and galloped in the third, handing Nadal just his second loss in 72 meetings at Roland Garros.
The top seed finished with 45 winners to just 16 from Nadal.
“When you lose in the way I lost today, I'd say ‘c'est la vie’. It's the way it is. That is, if you look at the score I'd say I didn't win enough games. He played better than I did,” admitted Nadal, who will drop to No10 in the rankings on Monday (or No11 if Jo-Wilfried Tsonga makes the final).
“First thing is to congratulate him, second is to accept the loss, third is to analyse why I lost then work really hard. “I gonna fight. I lost in 2009 and was not the end. I lost in 2015, and it is not the end. I hope to be back here the next year with another chance.”
Djokovic’s family and team celebrated quietly with champagne in the players’ restaurant, with Nadal’s group sitting just two tables down. It can be a cruel sport sometimes but yesterday it was a fair one.
“It's definitely a big win, a match that I will remember for a long time,” said Djokovic, who is now 21-23 against Nadal lifetime.
“Obviously an ideal scenario is today could have been finals and could have a different discussion. But right now I'm aware that this is a big win, which I will enjoy tonight. But tomorrow is a new day and I have to move on. It's only quarter-finals, and I want to fight for the title. That's what I came here for. I have to kind of direct my thoughts to the semis.”