PARIS — It was a mere semifinal, and it was even relegated to the first slot on the Friday schedule, which meant the French love affair with leisurely lunches guaranteed there would be plenty of empty seats when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic walked onto the red clay to renew the best rivalry in tennis.
But long before they had finished chasing down each other's bold strokes in the afternoon sunlight, it was clear this match was anything but an undercard.
The rematch of last year's French Open final required 4 hours and 37 minutes, and Nadal, a seven-time French Open champion, prevailed, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3-7), 9-7, over Djokovic, the world's No. 1-ranked player.
"You need to love the game," Nadal said. "You (need to) appreciate what you are doing in every moment. I learned during all my career to enjoy suffering, and these kind of matches are very special. You don't have the chance to play these kind of matches every day. So when these kind of matches happen, you suffer, but I really enjoy these moments."
The grueling victory earned, truly earned, the top seed a chance to retain his title Sunday against fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, the fourth seed, who defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France 6-1, 7-6 (3-7), 6-2.
This is the first Grand Slam final for Ferrer, 31, who has long dwelled and excelled deep in Nadal's shadow at home and abroad.
Tsonga's nationality — and the big French TV audience that went along with it — explains why his match with Ferrer was scheduled second, the slot typically reserved for the main event.
But there was nothing minor in key about the operatic duel between Nadal and Djokovic, supreme athletes who symbolize this golden age of tennis with their ability to transition from defense to offense and back to defense in the matter of a few heartbeats.
Nadal, 27, is 58-1 in his long career at Roland Garros. That loss came against Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009.
After holding off Nadal at the end of the fourth set and leading by a service break and 4-3 in the fifth, Djokovic appeared poised to give Soderling company and himself a chance to win the only Grand Slam singles title he lacks.
But Nadal is one of the game's great competitors and problem solvers. Looking slightly fresher down the stretch, he broke Djokovic's serve in the long, eventful eighth game of the final set to get back to 4-4, then kept his cool and belief until breaking Djokovic's serve at love to win the match.
"It's been an unbelievable match to be a 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. … I congratulate him because 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."
Nadal recently missed seven months of action with left knee trouble and other health problems, returning to the circuit in February. Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and longtime coach, said he would never have imagined then that his nephew could be back in the French Open final.
Asked about Rafael's knee problems, Toni said his return was a miracle, broke down in tears, halted the interview and retreated down the stairs leading to the main player locker room at Roland Garros. He said Rafael had also teared up when they met after the match.