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Djokovic beats Federer in epic Paris semi; facing Khachanov

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PARIS — Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer 7-6 (6), 5-7, 7-6 (3) in an epic Paris Masters semifinal lasting three hours, after Federer saved two match points on Saturday.

Djokovic’s fourth straight win over Federer and 25th in 47 contests sends him into the final against unseeded Russian Karen Khachanov, who has never played in a Masters final.

“This is my best match of the year, that’s for sure. Big respect to Roger,” Djokovic said, addressing the crowd in French. “Whenever I play Roger he demands the best of me.”

Federer remains one short of 100 career titles.

“When you lose a close match like this you always have regrets,” he said. “Losing is never fun, so that’s why I guess I have this face right now.”

Djokovic is on a 22-match winning streak and will aim to move level with Rafael Nadal on a record 33 Masters titles.

“Novak is obviously on a roll. You can feel it,” Federer said. “He protects his serve very well.”

Earlier, Khachanov continued his strong recent form by beating Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-1.

Khachanov won the Kremlin Cup in Moscow last month for his third career title.

Djokovic, who beat him on the way to the Wimbledon title, is seeking a record-extending fifth Paris Masters title and 73rd title overall.

He was made to work far harder than when he beat Federer in the Cincinnati Masters final in August and his relief was evident.

When they hugged at the net, Federer gave Djokovic a pat on the chest and then walked off quickly, raising a thumb to the crowd as fans roared their approval.

They got everything they could have hoped for: Two players with a combined 34 Grand Slam titles, 59 Masters titles, and 533 weeks at No. 1 slugging it out at a level of unrelenting yet sublime intensity.

Brilliant one-handed winners on the run from Federer down the line and acute-angle volleys at the net; astonishing elasticity while retrieving from the baseline and laser-beam forehands to the corners from Djokovic.

Federer had 17 aces, while Djokovic got five of his eight in his last three service games of the match, stepping up his level at the right time.

Djokovic briefly let his volatile temper get the better of him, though, when he had Federer at 15-40 down in the ninth game of the deciding set. Federer saved both break points, and Djokovic whacked his racket into the ground, drawing the first and only boos of a titanic match.

Djokovic jogged over to get a new racket and held his hands up as if to apologize to the unforgiving crowd, unhappy that a pique of rage interrupted their gourmet feast of tennis.

Brimming with confidence in a season which has seen him go from No. 22 in the rankings in May to No. 1 when they are released on Monday, and in which he has added the Wimbledon and U.S. Open to his Grand Slam haul, Djokovic created pressure throughout.

But Federer saved every break point – 12 of them – and secured the only break of the match in clinching the second set.

The shot of the match went to Federer in the eighth game. As Federer charged to the net, Djokovic hit a powerful forehand which clipped the net and flew to the left of Federer, wrong-footing him. From a seemingly impossible angle, and totally off balance, he scooped his racket behind his neck and flicked a volley over the net for a winner.

Federer thrust his arms into the air, the crowd rose to their feet in sheer disbelief.

Even by Federer’s lofty standards, it was remarkable.

But after losing the match, Federer was left shaking his head. He was unhappy with someone in the crowd twice shouting “out” during the match-point rally.

“It’s just unfortunate it happens and at the end you lose the point, the match,” Federer said.

Still, he retained a sense of irony.

“Thank God the rally ended,” he said. “It would have been five times if it continued.”

Tennis and tropical plants: New French Open court is wild

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PARIS (AP) Tennis and tropical plants: The stunning new court at the French Open is, quite literally, wild.

Surrounded on all four sides by greenhouses filed with exotic plants, the Court Simonne Mathieu saw its first French Open match on Sunday, a triumph for tournament organizers who overcame strong opposition from critics who long sought to block construction in a 19th-century garden of the 5,290-seat arena.

Automatic sprinklers periodically doused the lush greenery from Africa, Asia, South America and Australia as Garbine Muguruza, too busy to notice, beat Taylor Townsend of the United States 5-7, 6-2, 6-2.

Muguruza, the 2016 champion, later gave a big thumbs-up to the sunken arena that is now the third-biggest at Roland Garros, after the 9,829-seat Court Suzanne Lenglen and the 14,962-seat showcase Court Philippe Chatrier that is in the process of being rebuilt.

“It’s a very cute court. It’s not small, but it’s, you know, cozy,” Muguruza said. “It’s like in a garden. It’s a different feeling.”

Spectators were impressed, too.

“It’s like being in a forest,” said Parisian Kelly Orsinet. “It’s relaxing and pleasant.”

Sinking the red clay court and surrounding it with tasteful modern hothouses filled with leafy plants prevented it from being an eyesore in its historic surrounds, the Auteuil gardens that date back to 1898 and are loved for their majestic steel and glass greenhouses for prized botanical collections.

Expanding into the gardens is part of a massive, partially completed 380-million euro ($425 million) revamp of Roland Garros, the smallest of tennis’ Grand Slam venues that can feel uncomfortably cramped in its busiest opening week.

Gilles Jourdan, the project manager overseeing the modernization, was on hand to savor the new arena’s atmosphere with its first crowd, a landmark in what has been a difficult birth, complicated by legal challenges from opponents.

Neighbors who overlook the site had “said `It’s a disgrace! A disgrace!” Jourdan recalled. “Fewer and fewer are saying it’s a disgrace now.”

“You can’t see the court. That’s very important and that was the most fundamental idea,” he said. “If you’re not flying overhead in a helicopter, you wouldn’t know there’s a court there.”

Like other showcase courts at Roland Garros, the lower of the arena’s two tiers is tastefully fitted with cream-colored, hand-finished seats of chestnut wood from eastern France. Upper-tier spectators, some of whom have a view of the Eiffel Tower, are seated on benches, because fitting seats up there would have blocked lines of sight, clogging the arena’s airy, open feel, Jourdan explained.

Named after the French Open women’s champion in 1938 and 1939, the Court Simonne Mathieu was about half-empty for the start of the match but continually filled as Muguruza fought back from her unsteady start in a westerly breeze that shook leaves on the tall trees overlooking the arena.

Modernization work will resume after the tournament. The Chatrier court, largely torn down after Rafael Nadal won his 11th title there last year, has been rebuilt but is still missing the retractable roof planned for next year.

In the meantime, organizers have done a good job of making the project-in-progress look spic and span for the next two weeks.

“It’s a bit like at the theater: You look backstage and go `Ooops,”‘ Jourdan said. “We’ve hidden everything, and 10 days after the tournament, we’ll start again.”

Tennis’ Big 3: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic still rule tennis

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The Big 3 are still very much around. They’re still leading the rankings, still collecting the biggest trophies. And they’re still the dominant figures in men’s tennis, responsible for the main storylines when the French Open starts Sunday.

Roger Federer returns to Roland Garros for the first time since 2015 — and a decade after he completed the career Grand Slam by winning his only trophy there. Rafael Nadal seeks a record-extending — and hard-to-fathom — 12th title in Paris. Novak Djokovic bids to win his fourth major championship in a row for the second time in his career, something neither of his two great rivals ever did even once.

They occupy the top three spots in the rankings, with Djokovic followed by Nadal, then Federer. They occupy the top three slots on the list of most men’s Grand Slam titles, with Federer’s 20 followed by Nadal’s 17 and Djokovic’s 15. And they have combined to win the past nine major tournaments, with three apiece.

“Nadal’s reign is never over. Just like Federer’s reign isn’t ending,” said Riccardo Piatti, who coached Djokovic when the Serb was a teen and has worked with other top-10 players. “As long as they play, they’re always very dangerous. But let’s not forget that Djokovic is No. 1.”

Might seem silly now, but there was a stretch when some wondered whether this group might be done with all of that winning.

Federer, who’s now 37, went 4½ years without adding to his Slam count. He dealt with knee surgery and recurring back problems. He sat out the 2016 French Open, ending a streak of 65 straight major appearances, then missed the U.S. Open and Rio Olympics that year, too. He skipped the entire clay-court circuit each of the last two years, before finally coming back this season and reaching the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome, where he withdrew, citing an injured right leg.

“In practice in Switzerland, I felt good right away,” Federer said about what it initially was like for him on the slow surface, which requires extra footwork and lengthy, grind-it-out exchanges. “Very happy where I’m at, to be quite honest. I was a bit surprised that it went as easy as it did.”

Nadal, who turns 33 during the French Open, did not win a title all season until last week at the Italian Open, which is mainly surprising because it means he kept faltering on his beloved clay.

He’s been sidelined by hand and knee injuries in 2019, and his play hasn’t always been up to his usual standards.

“Been some low moments for me,” he said.

But Nadal looked a lot more like himself in Rome, where he handed opponents a total of four 6-0 sets, including one against Djokovic in the final.

Asked to look ahead to Paris after that three-set loss, Djokovic said: “Nadal, No. 1 favorite, without a doubt. Then everyone else.”

“He’s one of the greatest champions this game has ever seen,” Djokovic said. “His mentality, his approach, his resilience, ability to fight back after long absence from the tour, injuries, surgeries. He’s had it all. He keeps on showing to the world why he’s one of the biggest legends of tennis history.”

Djokovic, who turned 32 on Wednesday, missed the last half of 2017 with a bad right elbow; he eventually had surgery last year, which he began with a 6-6 record and losses in the Australian Open’s fourth round and French Open’s quarterfinals. He was so bothered by the latter, which stretched his major title drought to two years, that he left Roland Garros in a huff, declaring he might skip Wimbledon.

So much for that.

Not only did he play at the All England Club, he won the trophy. Then he did the same at the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, making him the only man in tennis history with three separate streaks of three consecutive majors. Now Djokovic has a shot at a non-calendar Grand Slam, something he already accomplished in 2015-16 — and can set his sights on a true Grand Slam, winning all four majors in the same season, which only has been done by two men: Donald Budge in 1938, Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969.

And Djokovic has looked good on clay lately, winning the title in Madrid before losing to Nadal in Rome.

So now, really, the question is: How much longer can this terrific trio continue to thrive and hold off talented up-and-coming players such as 25-year-old Dominic Thiem, who lost to Nadal in last year’s French Open final, or 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Federer in Australia in January before losing his first Grand Slam semifinal to Nadal?

“Time is undefeated and these guys are doing a hell of a job of fighting it off, but it has to come at some point,” said International Tennis Hall of Fame member Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion. “Once these guys are gone, there’s a serious vacuum. … Roger, Rafa and Novak — they’re arguably the three best of all time.”

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AP Sports Writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.