Novak Djokovic teed up a French Open semi-final with Rafael Nadal by beating Italy’s Matteo Berrettini in a match which was stopped to ensure fans could leave before an 11pm curfew in Paris.
Serbia’s Djokovic won the opening two sets, leaving him on course to complete victory in front of the 5,000 fans allowed to watch the night session.
Berrettini won a third-set tie-break, forcing an exodus greeted by loud boos.
When the players returned, Djokovic wrapped up a 6-3 6-2 6-7 (5-7) 7-5 win.
The final stages of the match were played in eerie silence, like the previous night matches in the tournament, after initially taking place in front of an exuberant crowd.
That stillness was punctured, however, by Djokovic’s manic celebrations when he took his third match point. With his eyes wide and fists punching his chest, the world number one roared his delight at coming through.
Victory ensures Djokovic will renew his enduring rivalry with Nadal, who is aiming for a record-extending 14th title at Roland Garros.
The pair will meet for the 58th time in their illustrious careers, with the winner going on to face Greek fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas or German sixth seed Alexander Zverev in Sunday’s final.
Nadal, 35, is still deemed the favourite to land the trophy, which would be a 21st Grand Slam triumph and move him clear of Roger Federer for the first time in terms of most men’s majors.
Djokovic, 34, is two behind Nadal and Federer after winning his 18th Grand Slam at the Australian Open in February.
Why did the fans have to leave?
Just as there had been during Nadal’s afternoon match on Wednesday, there was a buoyant mood on Chatrier when Djokovic met Berrettini in the first Roland Garros night session to have fans.
The previous matches held under the floodlights had all been played behind closed doors because of a 9pm curfew imposed by France’s coronavirus restrictions.
The rules had been loosened on Wednesday, allowing more fans – up to 5,000 – to watch on Chatrier than previously throughout the tournament.
But, shortly after Berrettini provided competition to Djokovic again and the fourth set was delicately poised, the players left the court as spectators were turfed out in order to meet the newly extended 11pm curfew.
“I didn’t mind actually leaving the court because I felt like I needed a little bit of a break and reset,” said Djokovic.
“It’s unfortunate for the tournament, for the crowd, to have that curfew. But we knew it before the match.”
Questions were raised about why the French Tennis Federation decided to start the match not before 8pm local time (19:00 BST), when there was a gap of almost two hours after the end of Nadal’s win over Diego Schwartzman.
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“I would love to know why they started the match so late,” former British number one Annabel Croft said on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra.
“It hasn’t suited anyone. This is now eerie – the complete opposite to the atmosphere the two were playing in. Berrettini, in particular, was feeding off the energy of the crowd.”
Djokovic puts delay behind him to secure victory
Initially, there was crackling atmosphere as 2016 champion Djokovic tried to follow Nadal by asserting his dominance once again against a younger opponent.
Berrettini, 25, had not played since Saturday – given a walkover following Swiss 20-time major champion Federer’s withdrawal to protect a knee injury – and tried to make a fast start in a bid to unsettle Djokovic.
On Monday, Djokovic trailed by two sets in his fourth-round match against another Italian, Lorenzo Musetti, before fighting back to lead in the fifth set when the teenager quit.
Berrettini created break points in Djokovic’s opening two service games but, after the Serb staved them off and broke for a 3-1 lead, there was little chance of a repeat.
Djokovic saved another break point on his way to a 5-2 lead in the opener, continuing to play precisely and efficiently as he eased into a two-set advantage.
The third set was much tighter as both players remained relatively untroubled on serve, with the Paris crowd adding to the entertainment by creating Mexican waves and chanting the Italian’s name.
Djokovic described the atmosphere as “Davis Cup like”.
“It was a lot of fans involved, every single point cheering, screaming. Just an electric atmosphere out there,” he said.
“I’m happy that I had that experience of playing in front of the crowd in the night session.”
After fighting off a break point which would have left Djokovic serving for the match, Berrettini’s stoicism was rewarded with a tie-break which would decide if the match would be finished before the 11pm curfew.
The Italian had not looked like breaking Djokovic’s serve but ensured there would be a fourth set with the help of two uncharacteristic errors from the Serb into the net when he had a pair of service points for the match.
The end of the set at 10:30pm led to a warning from the stadium announcer about the impending curfew, bringing loud boos from the supporters, even though few looked in a hurry to depart.
Someone who also did not want them to go was Berrettini. Feeding off the crowd’s support had helped him to claw a set back and, after losing serve in what proved to be the final game of the match, he said it was a “shame” they had to leave.
“It’s something that I didn’t like. I was feeling the momentum. I was playing good,” added the Italian.
“Stopping wasn’t the best thing I think for my tennis, but I had to take it. Also physically I think didn’t help me. I got back on court and I wasn’t feeling great.”
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