So in fairness, that headline is a little misleading. It’s really more the way in which Novak Djokovic fell to Rafael Nadal in Friday’s French Open semifinal that’s great for the tour. It was a five-set, knock-down, drag-out epic of a tennis match—possibly the greatest that Roland Garros has ever seen. Nadal ultimately prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 in 4 hours, 37 minutes. But make no question about it: the outcome of this match was about both men, not just the victor.
It was tennis played at the highest level. (Nadal faces fellow Spaniard David Ferrer in Sunday’s final; Ferrer broke the host country’s hearts, downing Frenchman Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the semifinals). Though the scores for the first three sets may indicate otherwise, the two could not have been more evenly matched. At this point, there’s little question that Nadal is the greatest of all time on clay, and John McEnroe repeatedly reminded viewers that Djokovic is the best returner he’s ever seen, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi included. For well over four hours, both players bludgeoned the ball back and forth—Djokovic with his ferocious forehand and Nadal with shots that would spin so high that it was nearly a miracle Djokovic never jumped out of his shoes while leaping to return them. Nole—who had the crowd squarely behind him throughout the match—made fans believe that Nadal could finally be defeated on Paris’ fabled red clay.
This meeting marked the 35th time the pair had squared off—tying the Open Era record set by Jimmy Connors, twice (with both McEnroe and Ivan Lendl). Most analysts agree it should have been the final, as it would make pretty good sense to have the world’s top player and the seven-time champ as the top two seeds (Roger Federer, who hasn’t won a tournament in 2013 and was bounced by Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the quarters). But unlike officials at Wimbledon, those at the French are reluctant to stray from the current ATP rankings.
For all intents and purposes though, the Nadal-Djokovic was the championship match the 2013 French Open—the NBC broadcast booth seemed to believe as much, even if they wouldn’t come right out and admit it. Ferrer is the world’s fifth-ranked player and is especially gifted on clay, but he’s no match for Nadal: Rafa is 19-4 lifetime against countryman, and has beaten him in all three of their matches this year. (For what it’s worth, Ferrer might have had a slight chance against Djokovic, but Nole has won all but one of their six matches since his 2011 renaissance—and would have had unbelievable momentum after unseating Rafa.) Nadal, it’s worth mentioning, is now 58-1 all-time at Roland Garros.
Heading into the match, pundits and commentators alike made the stakes clear. For Nadal, he had the opportunity to earn his chance at an unprecedented eighth French Open title (and officially run the well dry on comparisons, analogies and superlatives for his all-time performance at Roland Garros). For Djokovic, he would be one step closer to completing the final leg of his career grand slam. But this match meant more than that. The clearest comparison is Nadal’s own quest to dethrone Roger Federer as the king of Wimbledon. He fell short in his first attempt in 2006, losing a four-setter in the finals. The next year, he pushed Federer even further, earning a fifth set but still failing to knock off the champ. Finally, in 2008, Nadal turned in a career-defining performance, finally unseating Federer in a five-set, five-hour marathon. That match is considered not only the greatest Wimbledon final of all-time, but possibly the greatest tennis match in history. Djokovic lost to Nadal last year in four sets, and this year in five. Could history repeat itself at Roland Garros next year? Maybe, maybe not. But for the first time in a long time, Rafa Nadal seems vulnerable in Paris. That’s a good thing for men’s tennis.