Rafael Nadal was beaten for just the third time at the French Open as Novak Djokovic won an extraordinary semi-final on a night of sporting drama at Roland Garros.
The great Spaniard went into the contest having won 105 of his previous 107 matches on the Parisian clay, losing only to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 and Djokovic in the last eight six years ago.
He had won all 13 of his previous semi-finals but, in a 58th match between the pair that was on a par with almost any that came before, Djokovic found the answers to the greatest challenge in sport to win 3-6 6-3 7-6 (4) 6-2.
It is the world number one who will take on Stefanos Tsitsipas – winner of a five-set contest with Alexander Zverev earlier on Friday – in the final on Sunday, bidding for a 19th grand slam title and to become the first man in the Open era to win each title at least twice.
Nadal had been trying to claim the outright men’s record with 21 slam titles and went in as a clear, albeit narrow, favourite, particularly given his drubbing of Djokovic in the final last October.
There was no doubt Djokovic was in the ascendancy and yet this was Nadal on clay in Paris and, as the Serbian knows better than anyone having lost to him here seven times, there is no tougher challenge.
A Djokovic break for 3-2 in the third set was immediately snuffed out by Nadal but the effort of doing so took it out of the 35-year-old, who promptly dropped his serve to love.
Djokovic survived another long game to hold for 5-3 and was at 30-0 trying to serve it out but one moment of hesitation was all it took to give Nadal hope and back stormed the champion with four points in a row.
Nadal was given a long ovation as he made his exit from the court, leaving Djokovic to try to sum up what had just happened.
“The first thing I want to say is it was my privilege also to be on the court with Rafa in this incredible match,” he said. “It is surely the best match I have played here in Paris. It’s also the match with the best atmosphere, ambiance and energy.”