Federer, the tournament’s third seed, won 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5) to end Djokovic’s 41-match winning streak to start the season. Nadal, going for his record-tying sixth championship in Paris, beat No. 4 Andy Murray of Britain 6-4, 7- 5, 6-4 in the day’s first semifinal.
The championship match in two days will be the fourth time Federer, from Switzerland, and Nadal, from Spain, have met for the title at Roland Garros. Nadal has won the previous three and holds a 16-8 advantage in career meetings.
“I said it earlier, I wasn’t here to spoil the party,” Federer said at a news conference. “I mean, just trying to put in a good match and trying to get to the French Open finals, which I’m now obviously happy I’m able to. But almost feels somewhat like I’ve won the tournament, which is not the case, you know. Silverware is still out there to be won, and I’m looking forward to the match with Rafa, which I guess is my true rival for the last all those years, you know, since he became world No. 1.”
Federer and Djokovic battled for 3 hours, 39 minutes as darkness fell, ending after 9:30 p.m. local time. Federer, who’s won a record 16 Grand Slam titles, took a 6-3 lead in the final tiebreaker and clinched the victory with his 18th ace.
“He has played an incredible match today,” Djokovic said in a news conference. “All credit to him. He went for the shots when he needed to.”
Djokovic’s streak to start the season fell one short of John McEnroe’s record set in 1984. The loss also denied the Serb, who won the Australian Open in January, a chance to replace Nadal as the No. 1 player in the ATP World Tour rankings.
“It was a pleasure playing against him today, I thought,” Federer said. “I told him at the net as well. I said I think his record speaks for itself, how great he’s played already this season, and it’s not even over yet. He can still achieve so much more this year.”
Nadal’s win, which came on his 25th birthday, puts the Spaniard in position to match Bjorn Borg’s record of six titles at Roland Garros.
“A lot of respect for the great Bjorn, but I am focused on trying to play well,” Nadal said in a news conference. “For me, it’s much more important to win Roland Garros then equal Bjorn.”
After winning the first-set tiebreaker, Federer dominated the second, with five aces and 15 winners, losing only eight points on his serve. Djokovic broke in the second game of the third set and stayed on serve the rest of the way to pull within 2-1.
Federer broke for a 5-4 lead in the final set, only to lose his serve in the next game. Federer went up 4-3 in the tiebreaker on Djokovic’s serve and won it five points later with an ace down the middle.
“I was very confident, you know, especially once I was up 7-6, 4-1,” Federer said. “I kind of felt like this match is not going to slip out my hands, even though I probably missed another 10 or 15 break points at the end of the second set. I just felt you don’t give me such a lead and then think you can crawl back into the match. I knew I was probably going to close this out. That was just a feeling I had.”
Nadal, who ran his career record at Roland Garros to 44-1, dropped to his knees with arms raised in celebration after the 3-hour, 18-minute match with Murray.
“The match was tough,” Nadal, who must win the final to stay atop the rankings, told reporters. “I had the upper hand throughout and whenever there was an obstacle, I managed to overcome this hurdle.”
Nadal took a 5-1 lead in the first set, before Murray fought back to 5-4 and had two break points for 5-5. Nadal won on his third set point as Murray hit a forehand into the net.
Four straight service breaks left the second set tied 4-4. Nadal came from 40-15 down to break again for 6-5 and closed out the set by holding serve at love.
Nadal broke Murray to open the third set, then saved two break points for a 4-2 lead. Nadal fought off three more break points for 5-3 and served out the match at love two games later.
Murray, who lost to Djokovic in the Australian Open final in January, made 40 unforced errors and converted just three of 18 break points.
“I think it was a close match,” Murray, whose previous best finish was the quarterfinals in 2009, told reporters. “He just played better than me. That was the difference.”