PARIS - For the fourth time in six years, great rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will do battle in the French Open final.
The five-time champion Nadal defeated fourth-seeded Andy Murray in straight sets 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 to reach the French final for the sixth time in seven years, while the blockbuster semifinal nightcap on Friday saw a third-seeded Federer halt world No. 2 Novak Djokovic's incredible win streak at 43 matches with a 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5) decision as night fell in Paris. With the heartbreaking loss, Djokovic also missed out on a chance to reach his first-ever French Open final and become No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career.
Nadal and Federer will meet in the final here for a fourth time, with Nadal taking the first three meetings from 2006-08. Federer will appear in his fifth French Open final overall, as he beat Swede Robin Soderling in the 2009 championship match to complete a career Grand Slam.
The dramatic nightcap on Day 13 saw Federer advance in near-dark conditions on Court Chatrier, as the match ended at 9:40 pm local time after 3 hours, 39 minutes of brilliant tennis.
"I've trained a lot during my whole life for these kinds of matches," Federer said. "There was an enormous amount of pressure on Novak and he really played well."
In one of the biggest wins of his illustrious career, Federer closed out Djokovic on his third match point of the night by blasting one final ace down the middle of the court.
The first set between Federer and Djokovic could only be described as ferocious, as the stanza, predictably, went to a tiebreak, which the Swiss won when the Serbian slugger netted a forehand.
The second set was basically all Federer, as the 29-year-old sublime Swiss imposed his will on his younger 24-year-old opponent.
"The first set was monstrous," Federer said, "and in the second set we were both tired because the pace was unbelievable."
Djokovic, however, turned things around in the third, as he won easily after breaking Federer en route to a 3-0 lead. It would mark Federer's first lost set of the fortnight (18-1).
The fourth set was no less than compelling, as the two stars traded big serves and massive groundstrokes. Djokovic appeared to be on his way to forcing a fifth set, which would had to have been played Saturday afternoon, by breaking Federer for a 5-4 advantage. But Federer broke right back and then held to assume a 6-5 edge.
Djokovic then held to force the second tiebreak of the match.
In that extra session, the super Swiss ripped an ace for a 5-3 lead and Djokovic then netted a forehand return to give Federer three match points. The Serb saved the first two, including an ace on the second one, but Federer converted on his third match point with his clutch 18th ace.
Djokovic had the previous four days off after Italian Fabio Fognini pulled out of their scheduled quarterfinal match earlier in the week.
The Belgrade native Djokovic had been 41-0 this year, including a 13-0 mark against top-10 competition. He hadn't lost a match since December, winning 43 straight before running into the determined 16-time major champion Federer.
John McEnroe still holds the men's record for the best start to a year, at 42-0. The American's first loss that year came at the hands of his arch-rival Ivan Lendl in the French Open final. McEnroe, like Djokovic, had also been 13-0 against fellow top-10 performers.
Federer is now 14-9 lifetime against the Aussie Open champion and U.S. Open runner-up Djokovic, and the two stars, oddly enough, had never met at Roland Garros before this year. Federer is also now 5-3 in their Grand Slam encounters, including a win in the 2007 U.S. Open finale. Djokovic had beaten Federer in the last two Grand Slam semifinals.
The iconic Federer improved to 5-1 in his career French Open semis.
The reigning French Open champion and world No. 1 Nadal, who turned 25 here on Friday, doused Murray in 3 hours, 17 minutes in the first semi on Chatrier. Murray was January's Aussie Open runner-up to Djokovic.
"Beating Novak today was maybe a good birthday gift for him because he lost his four previous matches against Novak," Federer said of Nadal. "I'm going to play against Nadal, my main rival, in another Grand Slam final. We live for these moments."
Nadal is trying to match the legendary Bjorn Borg as the only six-time winner at Roland Garros.
"For me it's a dream to be back in the final," Nadal said.
In the opening set between Nadal and Murray, the Spaniard notched a pair of breaks en route to a 5-1 lead before Murray, who played well in defeat, got one of the breaks back to pull within 3-5.
Murray then had a chance to break Nadal in the 10th game to pull even, but the mighty Spaniard saved the point to win the game, and the set, when the Scot netted a timid forehand.
In the second set, the two stars traded breaks over four straight games, as the stanza was all square at 4-4, but Nadal got the key break he needed to grab a 6-5 lead and consolidated the break with a hold of serve when Murray netted another forehand to give the Spaniard a commanding two-sets-to-love advantage.
Nadal promptly broke Murray to open the third set and never looked back. The match ended nine games later with one final Murray forehand into the net.
When the match ended, some of Nadal's fans serenaded him with a rendition of "Happy Birthday."
The birthday boy is now 11-4 lifetime against the three-time major runner-up Murray, including a 4-0 record on clay. The Spaniard also beat the Brit in a semifinal on the dirt at the Monte Carlo Masters back in April. Friday marked their first-ever battle at Roland Garros.
Nadal is now 4-2 in their career Grand Slam encounters.
"I had a lot of break-point opportunities. Rafa played well on a lot of them," Murray said. "He served well and was able to dictate a lot of the points with his forehand."
The nine-time major champion Nadal is now 12-3 in his career Grand Slam semis, including a flawless 6-0 mark at Roland Garros.
The amazing Nadal beat Soderling in last year's French Open finale and topped the Swede again in Wednesday's quarterfinal action here. Soderling handed Nadal his lone career French Open setback in a stunning fourth-round affair here two years ago.
The reigning U.S. Open, Wimbledon and French Open champ Nadal is an incredible 44-1 at the world's lone clay-court major.
The 24-year-old Murray dropped to 3-3 in his career Grand Slam semifinals and this was his first-ever trek into the final four at the French.
"Andy is a fantastic player," Nadal said. "I think he deserves to win a Grand Slam."
Nadal and Federer will meet for a 25th time, with the Spaniard holding a comfortable 16-8 lead in their lifetime series, including a lopsided 11-2 mark on clay and a 6-2 record in majors.
The fiery Nadal has already beaten Federer twice this year, in Masters semifinals in Miami and Madrid.
Nadal is 4-0 against Federer at Roland Garros, with the three wins in finals and a semifinal victory here back in 2005.
The lefthander Nadal will appear in his 63rd career final, seeking a 46th title. He's 2-4 in his 2011 title tilts, with all four setbacks coming at the hands of the previously-sizzling-hot Djokovic.
The tenacious Spaniard is 9-2 in major finals.
Federer will compete in his 97th career ATP-level final, going 67-29 in his previous title bouts. He's 16-6 in Grand Slam finals, including a disappointing 2-5 mark against Nadal.
Nadal and Federer hold the record for the most men's Grand Slam final matchups in the Open Era (since 1968).
The former world No. 1 Federer has won at least one major every year since 2003.
The top-four seeds reached the semifinals of a Grand Slam for only the 12th time in the Open Era this week.
The 2011 French Open champ will collect $1.7 million.