PARIS—Dusk was descending, wind was swirling and full-throated chants of “Ro-ger! Ro-ger!” from 15,000 or so fans finally were hushing as Roger Federer stepped to the baseline to serve — one point from returning to the French Open final and one point from ending Novak Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak.
Federer rocked back, unfurled his body and whipped an ace, his 18th Friday, to seal a 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) victory over Djokovic, then roared and wagged his right index finger, as if telling the world, “I’m still No. 1!”
So what if the official ranking says otherwise? This was Federer showing he’s still got what it takes.
He’ll go for a 17th Grand Slam title, and second at Roland Garros, in Sunday’s final against longtime nemesis and five-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, who eliminated Andy Murray 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 to improve to 44-1 at the clay-court major tournament.
By summoning all of the strokes and resolve required to win a taut, tense contest with a lot on the line, Federer also managed to do what no one else had in quite some time: defeat Djokovic, who entered the day 41-0 in 2011 and unbeaten since losing to Federer in late November.
“I wasn’t here to spoil the party,” said the third-seeded Federer, who completed a career Grand Slam by winning the 2009 French Open. “Almost feels, somewhat, like I’ve won the tournament, which is not the case. Silverware is still out there to be won, and I’m looking forward to the match with Rafa.”
It’ll be their fifth meeting — and fourth final — in Paris since 2005. Nadal is 4-0 in those matches, part of his 16-8 overall lead head-to-head.
A sixth French Open title would tie Nadal with Bjorn Borg for the most in history.
“I don’t think about that,” said Nadal, who turned 25 Friday. “A lot of respect for the great Bjorn, but I ... focus on [trying] to play well. For me, is much more important win Roland Garros than equal Bjorn.”
Djokovic is the only other player to have beaten Federer more than eight times, including a 3-0 mark this season before Friday. Long considered one of the top talents in tennis, Djokovic credited a handful of factors with helping him excel recently: more maturity, confidence from helping Serbia win its first Davis Cup title in December and a gluten-free diet he now refuses to discuss in any detail. He won his second major title at the Australian Open in January and arrived in Paris as a co-favorite with Nadal, thanks in part to having beaten the Spaniard in two tournament finals on clay in May.
“It had to end somewhere,” said the second-seeded Djokovic, who would have clinched the No. 1 ranking with a victory over Federer and will move up anyway if Nadal loses Sunday. “Best five months of my life, my tennis career. I cannot complain. It was definitely an incredible period.”
Nadal’s victory over the fourth-seeded Murray was far more compelling and competitive than a typical straight-set sweep, yet still paled in comparison to what Federer and Djokovic produced later. Because Nadal-Murray lasted more than three hours — and because the tournament pushed back the start of the men’s semifinals from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. to accommodate TV — Federer and Djokovic didn’t set foot on Court Philippe Chatrier until early evening. It was nearly 6 p.m. local time when the first point was played, and the heavy gray clouds clustered overhead limited the light.
By the end of the match, at 9:36 p.m., it was tough to see. Both men knew that if Djokovic managed to push their semifinal to a fifth set, play would have been suspended for the night and resumed today.
For portions of the first two sets, Djokovic’s timing was a tad off, perhaps a result of not having played since last Sunday. It was an unusual four-day break in the middle of a Grand Slam tournament, one that came about because Djokovic’s quarterfinal opponent withdrew with an injury.
Nevertheless, Federer and Djokovic produced riveting tennis, particularly in a 70-minute first set filled with lengthy exchanges, plenty of defense and terrific shotmaking.
As he approaches his 30th birthday on Aug. 8, Federer might no longer be at the height of his powers, but he’s still awfully good. A couple of shots he conjured up in the first set — a volley that landed right on a corner; a forehand winner on the run that caught a line — were so superb that Djokovic felt obliged to join fans in applauding.
It was at this tournament a year ago that Federer lost to Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals, ending his streak of reaching the semifinals at a record 23 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. A month later, Federer lost in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, too.
Semifinal exits followed at the U.S. Open in September — after wasting two match points — and the Australian Open in January, both against Djokovic. Add it up, and it means Federer went more than a year without reaching a Grand Slam final, which wouldn’t be a big deal for anyone else, but certainly was for a guy who’d never been through that long a drought since winning his first major title at Wimbledon in 2003.
Djokovic missed early chances to nose ahead. He held two set points at 5-4, but Federer saved both. Djokovic led 5-4 in the tiebreaker before a real lapse: backhand long; forehand wide; forehand into the net. Three unforced errors by Djokovic gave three points — and that set — to Federer.
Djokovic spiked his racket on the court and caught it, then cracked it against his green bench on the sideline. Many in the stands started chanting Federer’s first name, drawing a response of “No-le!” — Djokovic’s nickname — from the couple dozen loud, raucous supporters in the Serb’s guest box. Those choruses would return throughout the match.
“The first set was huge,” Federer said.
When he also took the second, things looked bleak for Djokovic. Federer began the day 174-0 when ahead by two sets in a Grand Slam match.
“I just felt, ‘You don’t give me such a lead and then think you can crawl back into the match,’” Federer said.
But Djokovic did, indeed, work his way back to win the third, the only set of the 19 Federer has played that he has dropped in the tournament.
Djokovic then broke to lead 5-4 in the fourth when Federer shanked a forehand off his frame. That let Djokovic serve for the set, but Federer broke right back with a forehand winner that he punctuated by shaking his fist.
In the next game, Federer faced two break points but saved both, the second with an ace.
Federer’s coach, Paul Annacone, said later: “He reminded me a little of the guy from California that I used to work with” — a reference to Pete Sampras, whose record of 14 major titles Federer broke.
Another ace, followed by a service winner, put Federer up 6-3 in the fourth-set tiebreaker. Djokovic served — and won — the next two points. But then came Federer’s chance to end it with one serve, and he did.
“Mental toughness in important moments. That’s what makes him a big champion,” said Djokovic, who fell one win shy of tying John McEnroe’s 42-0 start in 1984, the best in the Open era.
Factoring in the setting, the atmosphere and both players’ performances, a reporter asked Federer whether this might be the best tennis match since his 9-7 fifth-set loss to Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final. The question made Federer recoil.
“I haven’t disappeared since. I’ve played some great matches since, and I [made] some sacrifices. I wasn’t lying on the beach,” he replied. “So I’m pretty happy that I made that effort over the years, and that when it really counts, I’m at the big occasion. Today was one of those moments.”