PARIS – It was a mere semifinal, and it was even relegated to the first slot on the Friday schedule, which meant the French love affair with the leisurely lunch guaranteed there would be plenty of empty seats at the Philippe Chatrier court when Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Rafael Nadal walked onto the red clay to renew perhaps the best rivalry in tennis.
But long before they finished chasing down each other’s bold strokes in the afternoon sunlight, it was clear this match — the latest astonishing battle in this remarkable era — was anything but an undercard.
The rematch of last year’s French Open final required 4 hours, 37 minutes. Nadal, the seven-time French Open champion, prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3-7), 9-7 over Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 player.
“These kind of matches make the sport big,” Nadal said. “I lost similar one in Australia. Today was for me.”
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The grueling victory earned Nadal a chance to retain his title Sunday against fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, the fourth seed, who defeated No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France 6-1, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2.
This will be the first Grand Slam tournament final for Ferrer, who has long dwelled and excelled deep in Nadal’s shadow at home and abroad.
Tsonga’s nationality — and the big French television audience that went along with it — explains why his match with Ferrer was scheduled second in the slot typically reserved for the main event.
But there was nothing minor in key about the operatic duel between Nadal and Djokovic, supreme athletes who symbolize this golden age with their ability to transition from defense to offense and back to defense in the matter of a few heartbeats.
Nadal is 58-1 in his career at Roland Garros.
After holding off Nadal at the end of the fourth set and leading by a service break and 4-3 in the fifth set, Djokovic appeared poised to give himself a chance to win the only Grand Slam singles title he lacks.
But Nadal is one of the game’s great competitors and problem-solvers. Looking slightly fresher down the stretch, he broke Djokovic’s serve in the long, eventful eighth game of the final set to get back to 4-4, then kept his cool and belief until breaking Djokovic’s serve at love to win the match.
“It’s been an unbelievable match to be a part of, but all I can feel now is disappointment; that’s it,” Djokovic said.
Nadal recently missed seven months of action with injuries, returning to the circuit in February. He has won six of eight tournaments this year.
• Top-ranked Serena Williams of the United States faces defending champion Maria Sharapova of Russia in the women’s final Saturday. Williams has a 13-2 record against Sharapova.