Rafael Nadal did it the hard way

PARIS -- In the eighth game of the ultimate set in this extraordinary semifinal, Novak Djokovic ran into the net and -- after Rafael Nadal gleefully pointed this out to the chair umpire -- it cost him a point.

In the 14th game, Nadal ran down a lob and hit a spectacular between-the-legs shot that led to a blown overhead by Djokovic.

In the 16th game, which ended 4 hours, 37 minutes after the match began, Djokovic suddenly crashed and burned. He lost all four points on his serve and Nadal was a winner, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7.

Nadal, always pragmatic, wasn't getting too excited afterward.

"When you have a win and you win the trophy, it's more than when you win and you keep half," he said, succinctly. "You are finalist only, no?

"But was a real emotional match, that's the real thing. Both of us, we played for a lot of moments at very high level. So these kind of matches make the sport big. I lost similar one in Australia [to] Djokovic in 2012, in 5 hours, 53 minutes]. Today was for me."

Thus, Nadal advances to Sunday's final, where he will attempt to extend his record with an eighth French Open title. Rafa has won 58 of his 59 matches at Roland Garros -- the best record of any tennis player at any Grand Slam event. Ever.

In that final game, a spent Djokovic missed an easy smash and sent two forehands skipping far beyond the baseline. That sent Rafa skipping with childlike joy on his way to the net.

Frankly, it was exhausting just watching.

"It's been an unbelievable match to be part of, but all I can feel now is disappointment -- that's it," Djokovic said. "I congratulate my opponent, because he showed the courage in the right moments and went for his shots, and when he was [a] break down in the fifth, he made some incredible shots from the baseline.

"That's why he's a champion. That's why he's been ruling Roland Garros for many years, and for me it's another year."

Over 15 days here at Roland Garros, there are 252 main-draw singles matches. This was the one that mattered most, by far: Djokovic versus Nadal.

With all due respect to David Ferrer, who beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the second semifinal Friday, this was the men's final, even though the championship match is officially scheduled for Sunday.

It was a delicious matchup: Today's two best players in tennis (when they are healthy), at the very top of their games, with all kinds of motivation to win this French Open title.

For Nadal, it was an opportunity to add to a Roland Garros record that might never be approached.

For Djokovic, it was a chance to defeat Nadal at his favorite tournament -- and collect his fourth and final major title for a career Grand Slam.

That this was a semifinal was unfortunate for all parties involved -- and even those who weren't. The French Tennis Federation could have used its discretionary power to seed Nadal No. 2, guaranteeing that he wouldn't meet top-seeded Djokovic until the final. The All England Club factors performance history into its seeding calculations, but the French stick to going purely by the rankings. So Nadal, coming back from a seven-month injury sabbatical, was ranked fourth and was seeded third when Andy Murray pulled out. During the pre-event draw, his chip came on Djokovic's side, which ultimately meant they would meet before the final for the first time in nearly four years, 12 matches after they played in the Paris Masters event.

Coming in, it looked like a dead heat. They have met 35 times, tying for the most head-to-head matches in the Open era. Soon -- maybe Wimbledon? -- they will distance themselves from Jimmy Connors and his battles with John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl.

Nadal held a 19-15 edge, but on clay he had won 12 of 15. That statistic is misleading because, in their past six meetings on the dirt, they had split them evenly.

This year, though, Djokovic beat Rafa in their only clay match, 6-2, 7-6 (1), in Monte Carlo.

Early on, it looked as if Rafa was still angry about that. Thirty-seven minutes in, he produced the first break points of the match (three of them), and converted when Djokovic's forehand soared, unforced, long. An unreturnable serve gave Rafa the set.

Djokovic, however, took the second.

How to describe the third set?

Well, let's start at the beginning: There was a time when Djokovic did not have the best reputation as a grim gamer. Early in his career, he would tweak this or that and that hangdog, sad-faced Novak would come out. He would gasp for breath, mouth fully open, like a fish out of water. And, on too many big occasions, he would retire ungracefully. That side of his personality all but disappeared two years ago, when he dominated the game and won three of the four majors.

But when Djokovic found himself trailing 3-0 in the third, he left the court with an ATP World Tour trainer. He had appeared to stretch his left hamstring at the end of the match's fifth game, but seemed to be fully operational until that injury timeout. For the better part of the third set, the sad-Novak face was evident.

Nadal won six of the third set's games and seemed destined for his eighth final. But a funny thing happened on the way to a virtual walkover; Djokovic happened, actually. He stopped pouting, and, with the grim determination that carried him to the No. 1 ranking, he fought Nadal for everything.

Broken in the seventh game of the fourth set, Djokovic broke right back, forcing an off-the-court backhand from Rafa that sailed long. Thus, they lurched into a fourth-set tiebreaker, which was won handily by Djokovic. He ran down a forehand and Rafa's lunging backhand volley found the net and the delirious French spectators -- late-arriving as is the fashion -- congratulated themselves on their good fortune.

Djokovic surprised Nadal, breaking him right out of the box. And then the steely Serb successfully served three times with the lead. On the fourth, he relinquished it. Djokovic, serving at 4-3, was broken when he sent a tight forehand into the net and -- 4 hours, 5 minutes into the match -- it was dead even.

When Djokovic served at 7-8 and failed to hold, he was sent packing for the grass-court season. It was a gallant performance; the stat sheet said he had 75 unforced errors, but against Rafa, nothing is ever unforced.

As the match progressed, Djokovic had a long-running discussion with chair umpire Pascal Maria. The Serb argued that the court was too "dry and slippery" and needed watering. It never happened, and Djokovic fell down several times trying to change direction.

"Basically" he explained later, "on every changeover from 4-3 in the fifth asking, 'How long are we really going to play?' Because they couldn't really tell me. In the end, supervisor tells me, 'Yes, I go to the grounds people and I talk to them, and then I can't make a decision if one player is saying yes, the other is saying no.' So it's very relative in the end. Like whose opinion has more value, really?"

How big a favorite will Nadal be in the final? Based on everything we know, he has practically already won.

Looking for his 12th Grand Slam singles title, he'll be trying to break a tie with two monstrous legends of the game, Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. If you are a cynic, we will remind you that Ferrer has a grand total of zero.

"I learned during all my career to enjoy suffering, and these kind of matches are very special," Nadal said. "You don't have the chance to play these kind of matches every day.

"So you can lose, you can win, and that's part of the sport. Everybody likes the sport because what you see is what it is. One win; another lose. Sometimes one; sometimes the others. But is real, and that's the beautiful thing."